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Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations
01/21/2011

ICE returns to French government stolen Degas painting missing for 37 years

Homeland Security Investigations seizes iconic work before auction

WASHINGTON - U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton presented a painting by Edgar Degas, "Blanchisseuses Souffrant Des Dents," to the acting French Ambassador to the United States, François Rivasseau. The painting, completed between 1870 to 1872, depicts two views of a laundress with a toothache.

In 1961, the painting was loaned to the Musée Malraux in Le Havre in Normandy, France, but was stolen from the museum in December 1973. In October 2010, the Degas painting appeared in the Sotheby's New York catalogue for a pending auction of Impressionist and modern art.

INTERPOL notified ICE's Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) special agent in charge in New York who initiated the investigation. HSI special agents tracked the provenance of the piece and authenticated many markings on the back of the painting, including inventory marks by the Louvre, which confirmed the painting offered for sale was the stolen work.

"On behalf of ICE, it is a great privilege to return this painting that rightfully belongs to the people of France, and reflects a part of your nation's history and rich heritage," said ICE Director Morton. "ICE's Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities unit was established to identify, investigate and return cultural treasures such as this stolen work of art, to their rightful owners and countries of origin."

The acting French Ambassador, Mr. Rivasseau underlined that "at a time when even organized crime is becoming "globalized," it's essential that international cooperation between law enforcement agencies be as close as possible, and be supported by organizations such as INTERPOL. There is close cooperation between the specialist services of ICE and their counterparts from French Customs; this cooperation is based on the sharing of information and responsiveness."

Mr. Rivasseau warmly added: "What we are celebrating today is a gesture of friendship by the United States towards the French Republic. And for that, I would like to thank John Morton and all of the agents involved in this great accomplishment and of course through them, I would also like to extend my heartfelt thanks to the government of the United States."

"I applaud the tremendous investigative efforts by ICE HSI special agents in New York, INTERPOL France and INTERPOL Washington, as well as Assistant U.S. Attorney Duncan Levin for working together to recover and return the Degas Masterpiece that was stolen in 1973. The return of this piece of artwork is another excellent example of what can be accomplished when law enforcement authorities in the U.S. and abroad partner to identify and recover historic, stolen works of art," stated INTERPOL Washington Director Timothy A. Williams.

As the largest investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security, ICE plays a leading role in investigating crimes involving the illicit importation and distribution of cultural property.

ICE uses its investigative authority to seize cultural property items if they were illegally imported into the United States. It also investigates the illegal trafficking of artwork, especially works that have been reported lost or stolen. ICE's Office of International Affairs, through its 67 attaché offices worldwide, works closely with foreign governments to conduct joint investigations, when possible.

Working with experts in the fields of art and archeology, ICE authenticates the items, determines their true ownership and returns them to their countries of origin. 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.