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Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations

ICE recovers stolen Degas masterpiece set to be sold at auction

NEW YORK - The United States entered into a settlement agreement with a New York-based art collector that provides for the return of a rare Edgar Degas to the government of France following an investigation by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Office of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

The painting, Blanchisseuses souffrant des dent, was stolen from the Malraux Museum in Le Havre in Normandy, France, on Dec. 27, 1973. At the time of its theft, the artwork was on loan to the museum from the collection of the French government, which considers the Degas artwork to be a national treasure.

The French government loaned the painting to the museum in June 1961 in honor of the reconstruction of the museum's building, which had been destroyed during World War II. Degas' Blanchisseuses souffrant des dent was painted approximately in 1870-1872, signed by Degas, and, like most French national paintings, was registered in the inventory of the Louvre Museum.

The painting was rediscovered last month when it appeared in the Sotheby's New York on the Nov. 3, 2010, Impressionist and Modern Art Day Sale catalogue.

Sotheby's promptly cooperated with law enforcement and pulled the piece from the auction block.

When inspected, federal agents found the Louvre Museum's registration markings on the back of the painting. The auction catalogue estimated the sale price to be between $350,000 and $450,000.

"We are very pleased to have recovered this historic piece of art and look forward to its return to the French government," said James T. Hayes, Jr., special agent in charge of ICE HSI in New York. "ICE will continue working with foreign governments, art dealers, and Interpol to recover priceless works of fine art and antiquities so they can be returned to their rightful owners."

"The return of this masterpiece to the French government reflects our commitment to ensure the return of stolen artwork and cultural patrimony," stated U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Loretta E. Lynch. Lynch expressed her grateful appreciation to Interpol France and Washington for their cooperation and assistance in this matter.

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, art and antiquities. ICE's Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Unit and Office of International Affairs work jointly to identify, investigate and eventually return art and cultural items to their countries of origin or rightful owners.

ICE uses its investigative authority to seize cultural property, art and antiquities 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 Homeland Security Investigations, through its 66 attaché offices worldwide, works closely with foreign governments to conduct joint investigations.