U.S. officials inspected a FedEx package shipped from Belgium to New York in December with its happy holiday greeting, "Joyeux Noel." They opened it and instead of a $37 "art craft toy" promised on the box found a stolen Picasso painting worth millions.
Loretta Lynch, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York and likely next attorney general of the United States, filed a civil forfeiture complaint seeking to seize the painting, "La Coiffeuse" (The Hairdresser), reported stolen from a Paris museum storeroom in 2001. The painting will eventually be returned to France.
"A lost treasure has been found," Lynch said in a statement released Thursday.
"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," she stated.
Picasso painted the work in 1911. It is an oil-on-canvas that measures 33 by 46 centimeters, or about 13 by 18 inches.
It was bequeathed to the National Museums of France by its former director, Georges Salles, in 1966, and assigned to the collections of the Musée National d'Art Moderne in Paris. The work was last publicly exhibited in Munich, Germany, in 1998, then returned to Paris and placed in the storerooms of the Centre George Pompidou.
There the painting, valued at about $2.5 million, remained until a request was made to again exhibit it. The staff went to the storeroom where they discovered it was missing in November 2001. The location of the painting remained unknown until December.
On Dec. 17, the painting was shipped by someone in Belgium to a warehouse in Long Island City, part of the New York City borough of Queens. It was then sent to Newark where it was examined by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, then turned over to Homeland Security investigators, according to the U.S. attorney's office.
The package's shipping label described the contents as an "Art Craft / Toy" valued at 30 euros, or approximately $37 U.S. dollars, a low-value handicraft shipped as a Christmas present.
No arrests have been made in the case.