22 October 2016
“La Coiffeuse”, a Cubist piece Picasso painted in oil in 1911, was discovered missing in 2001. Photo: Bloomberg
“La Coiffeuse”, a Cubist piece Picasso painted in oil in 1911, was discovered missing in 2001. Photo: Bloomberg

Smuggled Picasso heading home to France after 14-year odyssey


A Pablo Picasso painting stolen more than a decade ago from a Paris art museum will be returned to France.

US officials will return  “La Coiffeuse” (The Hairdresser) to French officials in a ceremony at the country’s embassy on Friday, Bloomberg News reported.

Worth US$2.5 million when it disappeared from the Centre Georges Pompidou in 2001, its value is millions more today, the news agency said, citing court documents.

It’s the fourth time in four years that the US is returning a stolen painting to France, according to the embassy.

“It’s really a great thing to be able to recover a piece of cultural property like this,” said Robert Wittman, a former FBI agent who founded the bureau’s national art crime team and now president of his own art security consultancy.

“It means a lot to the country it’s being returned to. It means a lot to everybody.”

With enough time, about 90 percent of stolen high-value paintings like the Picasso are recovered because there’s little market for them, Wittman said.

Buyers typically demand the title to the pieces, which thieves don’t have.

“The painting is part of our heritage,” Francois Richard, France’s customs attache in the US, said through a spokesman. “It is also excellent news for the public who will have the chance to see this unique piece of art again.”

The French government owns “La Coiffeuse”, a Cubist piece Picasso painted in oil in 1911.

Frederic Dore, deputy chief of the French mission to the US, will welcome it back alongside Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Sarah Saldana and Acting US Attorney Kelly Currie, who has handled the case for the Justice Department.

The painting was last exhibited in 1998 in Munich at Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung. After its display, it went back into the Centre Pompidou storerooms, where the museum’s staff discovered it missing in 2001 when it was to be prepared for loan to India.

US Customs officials at the Port of Newark discovered the painting in a FedEx Corp. package shipped from a “Robert” in Belgium on Dec. 17, disguised as an “art craft” Christmas gift worth 30 euros (US$37 at the time), according to the Justice Department.

It was bound for a climate-controlled storage facility on Long Island.

“To be able to return a piece by a master like Picasso is thrilling and we are excited to see it return home,” Sarah Saldaña, director of US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, said in an emailed statement.

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