French customs stumbled upon a stolen $1 million painting in an unlikely place

France Degas Found
This photo taken Thursday Feb. 22, 2018 and provided by French Customs shows a stolen painting by French painter Edgar Degas. French customs have discovered an original Impressionist masterpiece by Edgar Degas stolen in 2009 in a suitcase on a bus.

The 1877 monotype “Les Choristes” (The Chorus Singers) by Edgar Degas is distinctive for at least two reasons.

First, the French impressionist depicted dancers so often that this work is the only operatic scene he painted that omits them.

Second, it was stolen in a mysterious December 2009 heist after thieves unscrewed it from the wall one night at Musée Cantini in Marseille, leading investigators to speculate that the theft could be an inside job.

Camera icon Marc Bonodot / French Customs via AP
This photo taken Thursday Feb. 22, 2018 and provided by French Customs shows a stolen painting by French painter Edgar Degas. French customs have discovered an original Impressionist masterpiece by Edgar Degas stolen in 2009 in a suitcase on a bus.

The trail had grown cold over the years, as French customs investigators tried in vain to find the artwork, valued at more than $1 million. Yet on Feb. 16, it was not discovered at a shady auction house or the vault of an art thief, but inside a suitcase in the back of a bus at a highway stop near Paris.

Customs officials were performing a random search of the bus luggage compartment when they found a suitcase containing the work, bursting with vivid hues of orange, yellow and red, depicting chorus singers in the opera “Don Juan.”

The bus was parked near Ferrières-en-Brie, a verdant area about 18 miles east of Paris. None of the passengers claimed the suitcase as their own, according to France’s Ministry of Culture. A customs spokesperson said the find was not based on a tip, the New York Times reported. Long-distance buses in many countries, including France are often searched for possible drug transit.

The painting was confirmed authentic by Musée d’Orsay, the museum that originally loaned it to Cantini. Minister of Culture Françoise Nyssen called its recovery a “happy rediscovery” of the work. Its disappearance “represented a heavy loss for the French impressionist heritage,” Nyssen said.

Degas’ work is known as a monotype, or a cross between a painting and engraving. An artist creates an ink composition and brushes it on a metal plate before pressing it, the Culture Ministry said.

The find comes during a serendipitous moment, the ministry notes. Degas died a century ago this past September, and an exhibit featuring the friendship between Degas and the French poet Paul Valery wraps up on Sunday at Musée D’Orsay. The monotype will also be featured at a Degas exhibit opening next year.

While the recovery of the Degas is notable, French customs agents seized more than 10,000 works of art in 2016, mostly coins and archaeological objects, including marble works from the 14th and 16th centuries they believed were looted during the ongoing Syrian war.

In 2015, customs intercepted a private yacht in the Mediterranean displaying a painting by Pablo Picasso forbidden from leaving Spain. It was bound for sale in Switzerland, according to a tip. The painting was returned to Spain, Picasso’s home country.