- - Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A stolen work by French impressionist Camille Pissarro is going home after 31 years, thanks to sharp-eyed French investigators and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The work, a monotype (an oil painting transferred to paper) of a bustling market scene called “Le Marche,” was taken from the Faure Museum in Aix-les-Bains, France, in 1981, then smuggled into the United States and sold to an art gallery in San Antonio, Texas.

The work is already safely under lock and key at the French Embassy awaiting shipment to France. It was handed over to a French customs official by U.S. Customs officials last week. On Wednesday, a “repatriation” ceremony at the Kreeger Museum will re-enact the handover for the media and invited guests in the presence of the French ambassador, Francois Delattre.

ICE identified the thief as Emile Guelton, saying he “walked out of the [Faure] museum with the work under his jacket.” In 1985, according to records from a recent court case over ownership of the work, he sold “Le Marche” to J. Adelman Antiques and Art Gallery, which in turn sold it to the Sharan Corp for $8,500. The company was dissolved in 1992, and for the next 10 years one of the company’s owners, Sharyl Davis, displayed the Pissarro in her home.

But when Ms. Davis consigned the work to Sotheby’s, the New York auction house, to offer “Le Marche” for sale in 2003, French investigators spotted the work in the Sotheby’s catalog — valued at $60,000 to $80,000 — which also mentioned Guelton, and alerted ICE.

“We take action when anything is imported contrary to law — that’s our authority,” Randall C. Karch, the Customs officer in charge of tracking stolen art and artifacts, told The Washington Times.

In June 10, ICE instructed the auction house to withdraw the Pissarro from the sale and declared the work forfeit. Ms. Davis fought hard through the courts to maintain ownership. She brought suit to challenge the French efforts to recover the Pissarro, claiming that she was “an innocent owner” in ignorance of the fact that the picture had been stolen. But a federal jury rejected her arguments, ruling instead that “Le Marche” should be returned to the French museum under the National Stolen Property Act.

An appeals court upheld the sentence on June 3, 2011, and Wednesday Mr. Karch handed the painting to Francois Richard, the French Customs attache at the Washington embassy.

ICE chose the Kreeger Museum as the venue for the repatriation, following its practice of choosing a museum setting when possible. “It’s a small work from a small museum in France, and we’re a small museum, so the choice is appropriate,” said museum director Judy Greenberg.

For ICE the repatriation was all in a day’s work — a week’s work at any rate. The Homeland Security department charged with recovering stolen fine art and artifacts holds as many as three such ceremonies a week. Its list of recent recoveries includes Peruvian human skulls dating from AD 640-890 that had been brought into this country hidden in pottery and a Paul Klee painting recovered in Canada and returned to a museum in Germany.

“We used to recover mostly artifacts, but in the past three or four years stolen art works are becoming more numerous,” said Mr. Karch, a former anti-narcotics Customs agent who was reassigned to tracking down paintings a couple of years ago.

“It’s a growing area,” he said. “There’s a growing awareness of these crimes.”