Nearly a century after it was stolen from a French museum during World War I, a painting recovered by U.S. authorities was returned to the French on Thursday.
“Une Fille de Pecheur,” or "A Fisherman’s Daughter," by Jules Breton was taken from a museum in the northern French city of Douai by German troops in 1918. It was commissioned by the city in 1875.
A French museum curator received word in 2000 that the painting was being put up for auction by an art gallery in Zurich, Switzerland, said a spokeswoman at the French Embassy in Washington. The artwork -- valued at $150,000, according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which played a key role in the recovery -- then became the subject of legal wrangling.
It turned up in New York, where Daphne Alazraki, owner of Daphne Alazraki Fine Art, was preparing to put it up for auction when she was contacted last year by U.S. authorities. Alazraki, who had purchased a share of the painting from an American dealer, said by phone Thursday that she and an investor co-owner agreed to donate the painting to the French museum.
“Works of art play a vital role in the history and cultural fabric of the countries where they were created,’’ said Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan whose office helped in the recovery. "And one of the very few ways that we are able to redress the awful legacy of war is to return stolen art to its rightful owners so it can be shared and enjoyed."
"In this case, it took nearly a century, but it is nonetheless extremely gratifying,” he added in a statement.
French Ambassador Francois Delattre, who hosted a ceremony at the French Embassy to receive the painting, said its return is "a significant contribution to the celebration of our cultural heritage and a gift to all future visitors who will enjoy the work of art, but it is also yet another symbol of Franco-American cooperation."
The painting is the latest artwork recovered by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which investigates the importation of looted cultural property. Since 2007, U.S. authorities have recovered more than 2,500 items, which were returned to more than 22 countries.
Photo: “Une Fille de Pecheur,” or "A Fisherman’s Daughter," by Jules Breton. Credit: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement