Stolen Masterpiece Discovered: ‘Fisherman’s Daughter’ Returned to France After 90+ Years


Missing for more than 90 years, the beautiful and enigmatic “Fisherman’s Daughter” is finally on her way home to France.

The Jules Breton painting was stolen from the Douai Beaux Art Museum in Northern France by German troops during the First World War and its fate was a mystery that haunted the art world for nearly a century.

Then last year, there was a break in the case. French officials and Interpol were alerted that the painting, valued today at about $150,000, had been imported by an art dealer in New York. The painting was recovered, but the mystery was not yet solved. Officials discovered the painting had been heavily restored. Was this “Fisherman’s Daughter,” the authentic realist masterpiece, or a skillful fake?

Art experts, curators and historians from France and the United States were called in to examine the painting and investigate its long and clandestine history. After a close examination of records and documentation, both in the United States and in France, and visits to museums and key witnesses, the story of the painting emerged.

It was indeed the same painting stolen from the Douai museum in 1918 – the authentic “Fisherman’s Daughter.”

The back story investigators discovered about “Fisherman’s Daughter” theft turned out to be a engaging yarn.

It was discovered that during the German occupation of the northern part of the country. German troops confiscated artwork from the Douai Beaux Art Museum and sent the artwork to Mons, Belgium, and then to Brussels.

In 1919, the Belgian government organized the return of the French collection to France. However, “Fisherman’s Daughter” was not among the works.

No one is certain, but apparently the painting was stolen from the Belgian government prior to the collection being returned to France.

No one knows what happened to the painting after that, except for the fact that it was professionally restored. The painting was apparently in private hands recently, then turned up being imported to an art dealer in New York last year.

Today, U.S. officials returned the masterpiece to the French people at a ceremony in Washington attended by the French ambassador, ending the nearly century-long art mystery.

“Returning a painting to a museum is a significant contribution to the celebration of our cultural heritage and a gift to all future visitors who will enjoy the work of art, but it is also yet another symbol of Franco-American cooperation,” said French Ambassador to the United States François Delattre. “We are celebrating today a gesture of friendship by the United States toward the French Republic.”

The American portion of the investigation was led by a little-known office inside the Department of Homeland Security — the Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Unit, based in New York. The unit plays a leading role in criminal investigations that involve the illicit importation and distribution of cultural property, as well as the illegal trafficking of artwork. The agency specializes in recovering works that have been reported lost or stolen.

“As the foremost agency investigating the plundering of cultural property, we are pleased to return a piece of French heritage that was stolen during World War I,” said ICE Director John Morton. “We remain committed to combating cultural heritage crimes, which are one of the oldest forms of organized cross-border illicit activity.”

Since 2007, the ICE Art and Antiquities Unit has repatriated more than 2,500 items to more than 22 countries, including paintings from France, Germany and Austria; an 18th century manuscript from Italy; a bookmark belonging to Adolph Hitler and cultural artifacts from Iraq, including Babylonian, Sumerian and neo-Assyrian items.