A painting by Pablo Picasso stolen from the Pompidou Centre in Paris has been found by a US customs official after it was posted across the Atlantic disguised as a cheap Christmas present.
La Coiffeuse (The Hairdresser), painted in 1911, was reported stolen in 2001 when it was discovered missing from the Paris museum.
It lay hidden for the next 14 years until it turned up in Newark in December in a FedEx package from Belgium, labelled as “art craft/toy” with a stated value of $37 (£24) and with the message “Joyeux Noel” (Happy Christmas).
It had been posted by someone called “Robert” to a climate-controlled warehouse in Long Island, according to the New York Times. But customs officers inspecting the package discovered the painting, worth $2.5 million, and passed it on to a specialist unit dealing with international art trafficking.
French museum officials then visited New York to examine the painting and confirmed it was a Picasso.
“A lost treasure has been found,” said Loretta Lynch, attorney for the eastern district of New York.
“Because of the blatant smuggling in this case, this painting is now 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 that it can be returned to its rightful owner, “ she said.
The painting, which measures 13 inches by 18 inches, is the property of the French government. It was bequeathed to the National Museums of France by one of its former directors.
It was last exhibited publicly in Munich, Germany, where it was on loan to the Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung.
It was then returned to Paris and placed in the storerooms of the Pompidou Centre. Officials only realised the canvas was missing when a loan request came through in 2001 and they could not find it.
Alain Seban, the director of the Pompidou, said the recovery of La Coiffeuse came 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.
He said he hoped the work can be exhibited again publicly in May.
US and French authorities have not announced any arrests in the case.
Picasso, who died in 1973, was one of the world’s most famous artists and also has the distinction of being the painter who has had the most works stolen.
A total of 1,147 paintings by the Spanish-born artist are currently registered as stolen, missing or disputed, according to the Art Loss Register, a private database of lost and stolen art.