Nearly a century on, a stolen French painting returns home

AFP 12 October 2011

WASHINGTON — Nearly a century after it was stolen by a German soldier during World War I, and after a decade of transatlantic legal wrangling, a painting by French Realist Jules Breton is going home.

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement will return "A Fisherman's Daughter" on Thursday to France's ambassador to the United States, Francois Delattre, in a solemn ceremony at the French embassy in Washington.

On hand will be Anne Labourdette, curator of the Chartreuse museum in the northern French city Douai, which has been struggling for years to get back the painting it lost in the final weeks of the 1914-1918 war.

Born in 1827 in the Pas-de-Calais region that includes Douai, Breton idealized the French countryside and its people at a time when Europe was in the grips of industrial and social revolution.

Many of his works can be found at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, as well as in museums elsewhere in France and the United States, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Commissioned by the city of Douai in 1875, when Breton was at the height of his career, "A Fisherman's Daughter" depicts a barefoot young woman in a white headscarf, looking as if her thoughts are elsewhere as she mends a fishing net.

It hung in the local museum until September 15, 1918 when it was cut out of its frame by an unknown German soldier, just as German forces then occupying Douai were retreating, Labourdette told AFP.

Some 180 other works were looted at the same time -- of which only one minor piece has been recovered, in Berlin, and then only three months ago.

"The city undertook a search for the Breton beginning in the 1920s," Labourdette said, "but it was only in 2000 that Sotheby's auction house told the museum that it was going to be put up for sale" by a Zurich art gallery.

In response to a complaint from the museum, the painting was sealed for five years, during which -- amid judicial clashes and disputes between art experts over its authenticity -- it was returned to its American owner.

It then crossed the Atlantic, to be put up for sale first in the Dutch city of Maastricht, then in Cologne, Germany where in May 2010 it was identified and the Douai museum alerted.

"I got a call from a private collector who told me: 'It's your painting!'" Labourdette recalled.

Once again the museum pressed for its return, only for the painting to go back to the United States where Interpol, customs officers and the courts got involved in determining its fate.

Insured for 140,000 euros, "A Fisherman's Daughter" is being returned to the Douai museum for free by its current holder, the Daphne Alazraki Fine Art gallery in New York.

US dignitaries will be on hand when it is rehung in Douai on October 21 -- after which it will go nowhere on loan "except to the United States in recognition of the help extended" in its return, Labourdette said.
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