French customs agents stumbled upon a stolen $1 million painting in an unlikely place

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The 1877 monotype “Les Choristes” (The Chorus Singers) by Edgar Degas worth $1 million is distinctive for at least two reasons.

First, the French impressionist depicted dancers so often that this work is his only operatic scene to omit them.

Second, it was stolen in a mysterious December 2009 heist after thieves unscrewed it from the wall one night at Musée Cantini in Marseille, leading investigators to speculate that the theft could be an inside job.

The trail had grown cold over the years, as French customs investigators tried in vain to find the artwork, valued at more than $1 million. Yet on Feb. 16, it was not discovered at a shady auction house or the vault of an art thief, but inside a suitcase in the back of a bus at a highway stop near Paris.

Customs officials were performing a random search of the bus luggage compartment when they found a suitcase containing the work, bursting with vivid hues of orange, yellow and red, depicting chorus singers in the opera “Don Juan.”

The bus was parked near Ferrières-en-Brie, a verdant area about 18 miles east of Paris. None of the passengers claimed the suitcase as their own, according to France’s Ministry of Culture. A customs spokesman said the find was not based on a tip, the New York Times reported. Long-distance buses in many countries, including France, are often searched for drugs.

The painting was confirmed as authentic by Musée d’Orsay, the museum that loaned it to Cantini. Minister of Culture Françoise Nyssen called its recovery a “happy rediscovery” of the work. Its disappearance “represented a heavy loss for the French impressionist heritage,” Nyssen said.

Degas’s work is known as a monotype, or a cross between a painting and engraving. An artist creates an ink composition and brushes it on a metal plate before pressing it, the Culture Ministry said.

The find comes at a serendipitous moment, the ministry notes. Degas died a century ago this past September, and an exhibit featuring the friendship between him and the French poet Paul Valéry wraps up on Sunday at Musée d’Orsay. The monotype also will be featured at a Degas exhibit opening next year.

While the recovery of the Degas is notable, French customs agents seized more than 10,000 works of art in 2016, mostly coins and archaeological objects, including marble works from the 14th and 16th centuries they said were looted during the Syrian war.

In 2015, customs intercepted a private yacht in the Mediterranean displaying a painting by Pablo Picasso forbidden from leaving Spain. It was bound for sale in Switzerland, according to a tip. The painting was returned to Spain, Picasso’s home country.

Why bother stealing art?

With art prices skyrocketing, museum thefts are on the rise. It might even be more profitable to steal a Picasso — or, in the case of the Zurich heist in February 2008, a Cézanne — than a bag of diamonds. Some recent thefts have proven how easy it can be to take a painting. But how can thieves sell “Boy in the Red Waistcoat” if the whole world knows it was stolen?

There are really only a couple of ways to do it:

Thieves can sell the painting to an unscrupulous art dealer or collector. While it’s not the most common way to get rid of a well-known work, there are always people out there who will buy a stolen masterpiece. The thieves have to know exactly whom to ask, though. And they’ll be selling the work for less than 10 percent of market value [source: CNN]. That’s still a lot, though, with the price of art these days.

If the painting is very recognizable, it’ll probably never end up on the open market, selling for what it’s worth. But if the world has given up looking for a lesser-known work, a sort of art-laundering can take place. The first dealer might sell it quietly for a low price, getting a quick sale to avoid attention. If the painting then changes hands a few times in non-public deals, it can eventually end up at public auction with no red flags going up, since the owner listing it is, in fact, the legitimate owner. If the auction house doesn’t check up on the painting, it can slip through the cracks.

Director Steven Spielberg discovered he had a stolen Norman Rockwell painting in his collection in 2007 and immediately alerted the authorities [source: MSNBC]. The work had been stolen from a museum in Missouri in 1973. He’d paid $200,000 for the $700,000 work of art in what he believed was a legitimate sale [source: CNN]. The FBI believes the painting had been sold “legitimately” at least twice before Spielberg bought it.

Thieves can also sell the painting as a fake. The easiest and most common way to make money from stolen masterpieces is to sell the real thing as a very high-quality replica. This way, thieves can sell the work on the open market. They get far less than what it’s worth, but when the original is worth 10 or 20 million dollars, they can still walk away with a nice profit. The FBI believes that many of the stolen masterpieces that are still missing are sitting in the collections of legitimate buyers who think the work is a fake.

If the thief doesn’t want to risk a sale, he or she can always hold it for ransom or return it for the reward money. For a priceless work of art, museums and their insurance companies are willing to pay a lot for recovery, even if the robbers go free. The Boston museum robbed in a $250 million heist offered $5 million for information leading to the paintings’ whereabouts, but met with no success. For the 2008 Zurich heist, an unknown entity has offered a $90,000 reward for information on the two missing masterpieces [source: CNN].

There are more than 30,000 works of art listed on the international Art Loss Register, and the FBI estimates the market for stolen art to be in the area of $6 billion a year.

Source: By Alex Horton – globalnewsworld and JULIA LAYTON – howstuffworks.com

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