When the news broke a few days ago that US Customs had intercepted the delivery of a stolen Picasso in Newark, NJ, my immediate reaction was, “Wait. There was a stolen Picasso I didn’t know about?” On December 18th, a FedEx package arrived stateside from Belgium, bound for a climate-controlled warehouse on Long Island. The shipping label offered few details about the painting’s journey, other than that it was sent by someone listed only as “Robert,” and was described as “art craft/toy” with a declared value of €30. Upon inspection, the painting was seized by Homeland Security Investigations. Last month, French museum officials arrived in New York and, using photographs and historical records, confirmed the painting was indeed a 1911 Picasso, titled “La Coiffeuse” (“The Hairdresser”) which had been reported stolen in 2001.
The 12×18 Cubist painting was bequeathed to the National Museums of France by a former director, and was last on display in Munich in 1998, before being returned to Paris. It was then kept (safely, it was believed) in the storerooms of the Centre Pompidou. It wasn’t until 2001, when a loan request for the painting led to the discovery that the painting was missing. I couldn’t find anything related to the initial theft of “La Coiffeuse” within the National Stolen Art File of the FBI, the Works of Art Database at Interpol, or even the archives of the Centre Pompidou itself. Searches of the archives of the New York Times and Le Monde turned up no results, though the Art Loss Register estimates that there are nearly 1,300 missing Picassos.
The recovery of stolen works of art is certainly cause for celebration, so rarely is there as favorable an outcome when it comes to other art heists; paintings by Picasso, Monet and Matisse stolen from the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam in 2013 were burned in an oven in Romania in order to destroy evidence of the theft. James Ratcliffe, Director of Recoveries for the Art Loss Register, told the Guardian: “In our experience, we would consider this kind of discovery to be extremely rare. There must be a large number of similar parcels passing through customs every day. For this one to be spotted is either remarkably good luck…or the result of some kind of tip-off or surveillance.” Last week, the US Attorney’s office filed a civil complaint to return the painting to France. Alain Seban, the president of the Centre Pompidou, “said he was moved by ‘this happy ending’ to the saga of the work’s disappearance and expressed “deep gratitude” to the customs services.” The museum hopes to put the painting back on display to the public quickly, perhaps even as soon as the end of May.
You know who else will be in Paris at the end of May? ME. I’m crossing fingers and toes that “La Coiffeuse” will be there, too.
You can read about more art heists here.