Officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York (SDNY); and Interpol Washington, U.S. National Central Bureau, attended a ceremony on Oct. 13 to return the stolen painting.
The painting by the French realist artist Jules Breton was stolen from France along with many other works of art during World War I. 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, the painting returned today was not among them.
In 2010, French officials contacted Interpol Washington, with the news that "A Fisherman's Daughter," valued today at $150,000 had been imported by an art gallery in New York. Interpol passed the information through HSI's Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Unit to ICE's Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) office in New York.
After a close examination of records and documentation, both in the United States and in France, agents visited museums and conducted meetings with art experts, museum curators, legal representatives and key witnesses. It was determined that the painting, having gone through extensive restoration, was the same painting stolen from the Douai museum in 1918. Working together, ICE HSI, Interpol and the U.S. attorney's office facilitated the return of the painting to the museum.
"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."
"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."
"Works of art play a vital role in the history and cultural fabric of the countries where they were created," said U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, Southern District of New York. "And one of the very few ways that we are able to redress the awful legacy of war is to return stolen art to its rightful owners so it can be shared and enjoyed. In this case, it took nearly a century, but it is nonetheless extremely gratifying."
"I commend the tremendous work and dedication of all the law enforcement authorities and officials involved in this case, including ICE HSI and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York," stated Interpol Washington Director Timothy A. Williams. "The return of 'A Fisherman's Daughter' is yet another fine example of how U.S. and international law enforcement agencies can share information to combat cultural property crimes around the world."
ICE HSI 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. The ICE HSI Office of International Affairs, through its 70 attaché offices in 47 countries, works closely with foreign governments to conduct joint investigations, when possible.
ICE HSI specially trained investigators, assigned to both domestic and international offices, partner with governments, agencies and experts to protect cultural antiquities. They also train investigators from other nations and agencies on investigating crimes involving stolen property and art, and how to best enforce the law to recover these items when they emerge in the marketplace.
Those involved in the illicit trafficking of cultural property, art and antiquities can face prison terms of up to 20 years, fines and possible restitution to purchasers of the items.
Since 2007, ICE HSI 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; and a bookmark belonging to Hitler, as well as cultural artifacts from Iraq including Babylonian, Sumerian and neo-Assyrian items.