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March 2, 2022Washington, DC, United StatesCultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations

US investigation leads to return of gold ingots, other historical artifacts to France

Photo Credit: ICE Office of Public Affairs

WASHINGTON D.C. — U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) repatriated seven stolen artifacts, to include five gold ingots, to France, Wednesday. The artifacts were transferred from HSI to Honorable Phillippe Etienne, Ambassador of France to the United States, during a repatriation ceremony at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C. Among the repatriated artifacts were a gold coin (3rd century) and five gold ingots (18th century), recovered from the ocean floor where they had remained for centuries, and a human skull (18th century) that was stolen from Paris’ catacombs.

“These objects tell the history of France, its commerce, and its people,” said HSI Executive Associate Director Steve Francis. “HSI is proud to have played a role in ensuring these artifacts continue to be part of France’s history for future generations to enjoy.”

“We are very grateful to the United States for the action taken by its services to return these artifacts and emphasize the quality of cooperation between the French and American customs, police, and judicial services in the fight against trafficking in cultural property,” said Ambassador Etienne. “Facilitating this historically important restitution is the perfect illustration of the diligent application of our cooperation agreements, which I see as fundamental.”

In May 2013, HSI Los Angeles seized a coin which had been looted from French territorial waters and subsequently smuggled out of France. The coin, believed to be part of the “Lava Treasure” collection, has been traced to a transport ship lost in French territorial waters more than 1,700 years ago in the Gulf of Lava off the coast of Corsica in the Mediterranean Sea. Working with the Cultural Heritage Department at the French Ministry of Culture and Communication, HSI determined the history of this coin and identified the legal authorities supporting its seizure from an auction house in Los Angeles and its eventual return to France today. The coin will be returned to the French authorities in charge of culture and museums to join the priceless numismatic collections from the Treasure of Lava.

In January 2018, HSI San Francisco seized five gold ingots that were looted from the wreck of a French vessel and smuggled into the United States. The five gold bars, engraved with Chinese characters, were on the Prince de Conty, a ship belonging to the French East India Company, which ran aground in 1746 while returning from a voyage to China. Its treasures lay buried for more than 200 years until the bars were looted and eventually found their way to an auction in San Francisco. The ingots are subject to legal proceedings initiated by an investigating judge in Brest and implemented by the French office for the fight against trafficking in cultural property.

In June 2014, HSI Houston initiated an investigation into the illegal importation of artifacts by a Houston-based antiquities dealer. During the examination of a shipment by U.S. Fish and Wildlife inspectors, a human skull was identified and seized. Examination of the skull by a subject matter expert revealed characteristics consistent with the collection housed in the Catacombs in Paris, France. The inspectors contacted HSI special agents who determined that the importer had provided false information about the skull. It will be returned to the Catacombs Museum in Paris, to join the collections of the ossuary.

France has implemented administrative, judicial cooperation and mutual assistance agreements in order to bring its expertise to the identification of the objects with a view to their restitution. They have also initiated research procedures necessary to identify the scammers and the fraud circuits.

Over the years, HSI has returned many artifacts to the Government of France, including a painting by Picasso, La Coiffeuse, stolen from the France’s National Museum of Modern Art; a manuscript, stolen from the French Navy Archival Depository Fund, entitled Napoleon’s Commission of Appointing Toussaint Louverture Captain of the French Part of Saint Domingue; and Blanchisseuses Souffrant Des Dents, a painting by Edgar Degas, stolen from the Musee Malraux in Le Havre, France.

As a federal law enforcement agency with a global reach, HSI is a leader in investigating crimes involving the illicit importation and distribution of cultural property and art. Federal importation and customs laws give HSI the unique authority to seize cultural property and art brought into the United States illegally. HSI uses a whole of government approach with our partners in this effort, including the Department of State, CBP, and the Department of Justice, as well as the private sector.

HSI works closely with foreign governments to conduct joint investigations and is committed to pursuing a strategy to combat transnational organized crime related to the illicit trafficking of cultural artifacts by targeting high-priority organizations and strengthening international law enforcement partnerships. Since 2007, HSI has repatriated more than 15,000 objects to over 40 countries and institutions. Members of the public who have information about the illicit distribution of cultural property, as well as the illegal trafficking of artwork, are urged to call the toll-free tip line at 1-866-DHS-2-ICE or to complete the online tip form.

About HSI

HSI is a directorate of ICE and the principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), responsible for investigating transnational crime and threats, specifically those criminal organizations that exploit the global infrastructure through which international trade, travel, and finance move.

HSI’s workforce of over 10,400 employees consists of more than 7,100 special agents assigned to 220 cities throughout the United States, and 80 overseas locations in 53 countries. HSI’s international presence represents DHS’s largest investigative law enforcement presence abroad and one of the largest international footprints in U.S. law enforcement.