It’s not uncommon for customs officials to randomly stop long-distance bus journeys in Europe for a quick check. Drugs are often found during these routine stops, but not stolen paintings by famous artists.
On February 16, customs officials in Marne-la-Vallée, France, were stunned to discover a stolen work by French Impressionist artist Edgar Degas when they inspected a bus at a rest stop 18 miles east of Paris. Upon opening a suitcase, which no one on the bus claimed, the officers were greeted by a canvas of vibrant red, orange, and yellow pastels, as well as the unmistakable signature of one Monsieur Edgar Degas. The work, which bore no frame upon discovery, was soon confirmed to be the artist’s 1877 monotype titled Les Choristes, which belonged to the famed Musée d’Orsay, in Paris. So how did it end up in the storage compartment of a bus outside Paris? That is precisely the question officials are investigating.
Les Choristes is not only a painting but also a monotype—a printmaking process that runs ink drawings on metal plates through a press to create a single print, an art form Degas used as a jumping-off point to expand upon with pastels and paints. This particular painting holds significant importance to the artist’s career, since it’s his only painting inspired by the opera that doesn’t feature any ballet dancers. In a conversation with French historian Daniel Halévy, Degas once said that the opera depicted in the work is Don Giovanni, featuring the final chorus of the first act, which celebrates the engagement of Masetto and Zerlina.
The work had been missing since 2009, when it was quietly stolen from the Musée Cantini, in Marseille, where it had been on loan from Paris’s Musée d’Orsay for an exhibition of paintings depicting theatrical scenes. The case’s prosecutor suggested that the theft had been an inside job, done overnight, since the work had been unscrewed from the wall and no break-in had been reported. The night watchman on duty was briefly detained, but he was let go when it was confirmed he had no connection to the theft of the work, which was valued at $1.15 million.
Françoise Nyssen, France’s culture minister, said in a statement that she was delighted by “this fortunate rediscovery of a precious work belonging to the national collection.” “Its disappearance represented a heavy period in the country’s French Impressionism heritage.” Nyssen noted that the work’s rediscovery comes at a poignant time, because the artist was recently the subject of a Musée d’Orsay exhibition, which ended this past Sunday. But, she announced, Les Choristes would have a special place in the upcoming exhibition on Degas at the Opera, which will open in September 2019, also at Musée d’Orsay.
“We had not heard about it since 2009 and we had all the reasons to be worried about its fate,” a spokesperson for the museum told Agence France-Presse. “It is a wonderful happy ending to the story . . . it would have been a terrible loss for us to do [the upcoming exhibition] without this painting.”
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