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Stolen impressionist art returned after 3 decades

By Aaron Cooper, CNN
updated 10:00 AM EST, Thu January 26, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Camille Pissarro's "Le Marche aux Poissons" is given to the French ambassador
  • It was stolen from Faure Museum in Aix-les-Bains in southeastern France in 1981
  • It was sold to a Texas gallery, but wasn't identified as stolen until it wanted to auction it

Washington (CNN) -- More than 30 years after it was stolen from a French museum, an impressionist painting is on its way home.

Camille Pissarro's "Le Marche aux Poissons" ("The Fish Market" in English) was handed over to the French ambassador by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Wednesday.

"I love days like this because they are all about the triumph of right over wrong," said ICE Director John Morton before signing the document to return the art.

The roughly greeting-card-size work was stolen from the Faure Museum in Aix-les-Bains in southeastern France in 1981. A museum guard told authorities she saw a man walk out with the work hidden under his jacket.

The piece is a color monotype, a one-of-a-kind print made by painting on glass and then transferring the wet paint to a piece of paper.

Pissarro painted 24 monotypes and only 12 of them were colored, according to the French ambassador, Francois Delattre. "Today is a great day" he said. "This thriller has a happy ending"

This Pissarro was sold to a gallery in San Antonio, Texas, in 1985, where it was bought by a gallery employee, according to ICE investigators. In 2003, they said, she tried to sell it at a New York auction house, where it was expected to bring $60,000 to $80,000.

It was recognized as stolen art and, after years of legal battling, was forfeited to ICE in November of 2011.

Wednesday's return was staged in a hall of a Washington museum filled with other French impressionist works, including some by artists who were inspired by Pissarro.

"'Le Marche aux Poissons' will once again be seen by the public," Delattre said. He called its return "a gift to all future visitors."

The customs bureau said that since 2007 it has returned more than 2,500 items to more than 22 countries.

The man who authorities think walked out of the French museum with the Pissarro has never been prosecuted for the theft.

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