Undated photo-- A cubist painting entitled "The Hairdresser" by Pablo Picasso. Authorities say the painting-- worth millions of dollars-- was stolen in France and smuggled into the U.S. by someone who falsely labeled it as an "art craft" worth about $37 when it was shipped. (AP)
A stolen Picasso painting worth millions was nabbed by U.S. customs authorities in Newark, New Jersey who didn't believe the Fed Ex package was a Christmas gift worth only $37.
The cubist oil-on-canvas, called "La Coiffeuse" -- or "The Hairdresser" in English--was painted in 1911 and belongs to the National Museums of France. The former head of the NMF, George Salles, bequeathed it in 1966 when it was placed in the Musee d'Art Moderne in Paris. It was last publicly exhibited in Germany as a loan to the Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung before it was returned to France and placed at the Centre George Pompidou museum in Paris, the New York Post reported.
When there was a request to loan out the painting in 2001, Centre Pompidou authorities determined it was missing from a storage room. After an unsuccessful search, the French government declared the painting stolen. That was the last sighting of it until U.S. customs discovered it at the Port of Newark in December in a suspicious package, Brooklyn federal prosecutors announced Thursday.
U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York Loretta E. Lynch filed a civil complaint to forfeit the Picasso and return it to France on Thursday.
A Belgian sender, identified only as "Robert," shipped the painting via FedEx to a climate-controlled Long Island storage facility last December, court papers state.
The package contained a cheerful "Merry Christmas!" greeting in French, and the sender called the work an "art craft" valued at $37, court papers said.
"The shipper was required to accurately declare the value...which is estimated to be worth millions of dollars. The FedEx airway bill and commercial invoice shipped with the Defendant declared its value as 30 Euros, or approximately $37.00," court papers state.
The painting was valued at $2.5 million in 2001, but is believed to be worth much more now.
Customs officials weren't fooled and turned over the small painting to homeland security agents who invited French art experts to examine it at the Long Island City facility.
Brigitte Leal, Deputy Director of Collections at Musee Nationale d'Art Moderne, and Veronique Serano-Steadman, head curator at the museum, inspected the canvas and determined it was actually the multi-million dollar masterpiece.
"A lost treasure has been found," said U.S. Attorney Lynch of the move to seize the piece and return it to France. "Because of the blatant smuggling in this case the painting is subject to forfeiture to the United States. Forfeiture of the painting will extract it from the grasp of the black market in stolen art so it can be returned to its rightful owner," Lynch said.
U.S. and French authorities have not announced any arrests in the case.
Pompidou director Alain Seban said the discovery comes as a "true comfort" at a time when the cultural world is reeling from an Islamic State video showing the destruction of statues in Iraq.
Seban said in a statement Friday that he hopes the work can be exhibited again publicly in May.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.