Pablo Picasso’s “La Coiffeuse” vanished years ago, stolen from a storage room in Paris. The cubist painting, owned by the French government and assigned to the collections of the Musée National d’Art Moderne, wasn’t seen again until it surfaced recently in Newark, after smugglers apparently tried to ship it to the United States.
The FedEx package, sent from Belgium in December, was labeled as a $37 “art craft” and “toy” and marked “Joyeux Noel” — as in, “Merry Christmas.”
But there was no cheap handicraft gift inside. Instead, the package contained “La Coiffeuse” (“The Hairdresser”), which had been missing since at least 2001. The painting was held by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents before the Department of Homeland Security seized it.
“A lost treasure has been found,” Loretta E. Lynch, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said in a statement announcing the seizure. “Because of the blatant smuggling in this case, this painting is now subject to forfeiture to the United States. Forfeiture of the painting will extract it from the grasp of the black market in stolen art so that it can be returned to its rightful owner.”
The person who sent the painting to the United States hasn’t been identified. On the label, the shipper is simply called “Robert,” officials told NBC News. The package was addressed to a climate-controlled warehouse in Queens.
The artwork, whose current market value “is estimated to be in the millions of dollars,” is an oil-on-canvas painting that measures 33 by 46 centimeters (13 by 18 inches), according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
It was first reported missing in 2001, the U.S. Attorney’s Office explains: After what turned out to be its last public exhibition for some time, “La Coiffeuse” was placed into storage in the Centre Georges Pompidou, which houses the national modern art museum.
Staffers figured out that the painting was missing when they went to track it down for a subsequent loan request and it simply wasn’t there. That was in November 2001; no one had a clue where it went until December 2014, when U.S. officials found it in the “gift” package.
French officials then traveled to the United States to examine the painting and confirm that it was, in fact, the genuine, stolen Picasso, the New York Times reported.
On Thursday, Lynch’s office filed a civil forfeiture request to return the painting to France.
Pompidou Center Director Alain Seban said the discovery comes as a “true comfort” at a time when the cultural world is reeling from an Islamic State video showing the destruction of statues in Iraq, the Associated Press reported.
In a statement, the AP added, Seban said he hopes the recovered Picasso can be exhibited publicly in May.