Nine years ago, "Les Choristes,” a pastel painting depicting opera singers in the thrall of a performance of "Don Giovanni," made by the renowned French Impressionist Edgar Degas was stolen from the Cantini museum in Marseille, France. Though authorities believed the theft was an inside job, efforts to track down the precious image stalled—until this weekend. Laurel Wamsley at NPR reports that a random search of a luggage compartment of a bus outside Paris is to thank for the work's safe return.
According to the French Ministry of Culture, customs agents searched the bus when it was stopped at a rest area on the Ferrières-en-Brie motorway in Seine-et-Marne. They found the artwork bearing the signature of Degas inside a suitcase under the vehicle, but no one on the bus was willing to claim the bag. Customs officials then confirmed the authenticity of the painting with experts at the Musée d'Orsay, which had loaned the work to the Cantini museum.
“It is a wonderful happy ending to the story,” a spokeswoman for the museum tells Agence-France Presse. “It is the centenary of his death, and we are organizing a huge show about Degas and the opera for 2019. It would have been a terrible loss for us to do it without this painting.”
The 1877 artwork is, notably, the only Degas piece from the opera that does not include dancers. Instead, it captures a scene of the chorus members singing. As the Ministry of Culture explains, the work itself is a monotype, where the artist makes an image in ink or paint on a metal plate, which is then run through a press, creating a single image. This particular monotype was exhibited at the Impressionist Exhibition of 1877 and made a splash with critics, who noticed its realism and bold layout.
According to the AFP, the work is valued at about $893,000. While the culture minister says the find was a “happy discovery,” Gérald Darmanin, France's minister of customs, was unwilling to say how the discovery was made. The office has been on high alert in recent months, on the lookout for stolen artwork and artifacts across the country. According to the ministry, French customs recovered 10,000 works of art and artifacts in 2016. This year, which the European Union has declared "the European Year of Cultural Heritage," the customs agency is making an extra effort to increase enforcement and prevent the theft and black market sale of cultural objects.
Looking stateside, the United States, too, is trying to crack down on the art and antiquities market, with the Manhattan D.A. launching a dedicated art unit late last year. The last two decades of instability in Syria and Iraq have led to an increase in looting and the sale of illegal artifacts and in recent decades art crimes have become the third most profitable criminal trade in the world, behind drugs and weapons.