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French get back famous painting stolen during World War I

By Carol Cratty, CNN Senior Producer
updated 8:59 PM EDT, Thu October 13, 2011
French Ambassador François Delattre, left, shakes hands with ICE Director John Morton during the ceremony Thursday.
French Ambassador François Delattre, left, shakes hands with ICE Director John Morton during the ceremony Thursday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The work by Jules Breton was stolen during World War I
  • In 2010 French officials told Interpol the painting might be in New York
  • ICE seized the painting from a gallery after an investigation
  • The painting was handed over to the French ambassador in a repatriation ceremony

Washington (CNN) -- A famous French painting stolen during World War I by the German Army was returned to the government of France by U.S. officials on Thursday. The 1876 Jules Breton work is called "A Fisherman's Daughter/Mender of Nets" or to the people of France it's "Une Fille de Pecheur/Raccommodeuses de Filets."

In 1918 the German army confiscated that painting and others from the Musee de Douai in the city of Douai and transported them to Belgium. The following year the Belgium government went to return all the French works of art, but the "Fisherman's Daughter/Mender of Nets" was missing.

Spring forward to 2010 and French officials alerted Interpol that the painting might have been imported by a gallery in New York City. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigators worked the case, concluded the painting in New York was the same one stolen from France more than 90 years ago and seized it.

The painting, which is worth an estimated $150,000 dollars, was handed over to the French ambassador to the United States during a repatriation ceremony in Washington. ICE did not provide details about how the painting reached the gallery in New York or where it might have been in the decades since it was stolen.

"Returning a painting to a museum 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," said French Ambassador François Delattre in a written statement. "We are celebrating today a gesture of friendship by the United States toward the French Republic."

The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York worked on the case. "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, "said U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. "In this case, it took nearly a century, but it is nonetheless extremely gratifying.

ICE does numerous investigations into stolen art or cultural artifacts and has helped repatriate many other items to various nations. "We remain committed to combating cultural heritage crimes, which are one of the oldest forms of organized cross-border illicit activity," said ICE Director John Morton.

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