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Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations

Stolen Italian painting ordered forfeited to the government

NEW YORK - Following an investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the painting Leda ed il Cigno, by Italian Renaissance painter Lelio Orsi, was ordered forfeited to the government as property brought into the United States in violation of customs laws.

According to the forfeiture complaint filed in Manhattan federal court in December 2008, the painting was sold to an individual who imported it into the United States via John F. Kennedy International Airport on Nov. 29, 2006, by means of false declarations as to its country of origin.

U.S. law requires the filing of a Customs Entry Summary for any artwork being imported into the United States. The artwork's country of origin must be included on that Customs Entry Summary.

In December 2006, a Customs Entry Summary was filed indicating that the Painting's county of origin was Great Britain. After the Painting was illegally imported into the United States, it was auctioned and sold at Sotheby's New York on Jan.24, 2008, for more than $1 million. After the sale, the purchaser rescinded the purchase after learning of the pending Italian criminal investigation.

"These are precisely the types of treasures that ICE HSI's Cultural Property Art and Antiquities unit was established to identify and investigate," James T. Hayes, Jr., special agent in charge of ICE HSI in New York. "Having ICE agents specifically trained in conducting investigations of illicitly trafficked cultural property and art has provided our agents with the necessary tools to identify violations, conduct criminal investigations and, ultimately, return stolen objects of a nation's cultural heritage to their rightful owners."

U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara said: "We are gratified that we have secured the forfeiture of this important work of art and that it will now be returned to the Italian government. We are committed to working with our law enforcement partners to recover stolen property and return it to its rightful owners."

The painting was forfeited to the United States on Jan. 11, after the U.S. District Court dismissed a claim to the painting filed by a private corporation in Madeira. The painting was sold at auction in 2008 for more than $1 million, but the sale was later rescinded. The painting was subsequently seized, in June 2008, by ICE HSI pursuant to a seizure warrant, and has been held in an appropriate facility since that time. The painting will be repatriated to the Republic of Italy in accordance with its request.

The forfeiture arose out of an Italian criminal investigation conducted by the Office of the Public Prosecutor at the Ordinary Court of Rome in conjunction with the Unit for the Protection of the Cultural Heritage of the Italian National Police. Italian laws for the protection of Italy's historical and cultural heritage prohibit the exportation of objects of artistic, historic, or cultural significance without first obtaining an export license from the Ministry of Italian Culture.

In the case of this painting, Italian authorities verified that the Italian government had not issued the requisite export license authorizing its legal exportation from Italy.

Property that is stolen abroad and later brought into the United States is subject to forfeiture. In March 2008, the Public Prosecutor's Office for the Court of Rome filed a mutual legal assistance request with the United States seeking assistance in the investigation and seizure of the Leda ed il Cigno.