Degas stolen 37 years ago will be returned to France

"Blanchisseuses Souffrant des Dents," Edgar Degas, 1870-72The New York office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced today that a Degas painting stolen from a Normandy museum in 1973 will be returned to France. The painting, “Blanchisseuses Souffrant Des Dents” (Laundry Women with Toothache), was stolen from the Musée d’Art Moderne André-Malraux in Le Havre by a person or persons still unknown, and then disappeared into the shadowy underground for 37 years. Last month a Malraux employee found it while flipping through the catalog of Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Day Art sale.

He called the museum’s director and she contacted the French police and the ministry of culture. They in turn alerted Sotheby’s, which immediately withdrew the piece from the auction. Sotheby’s claims they had no idea it was stolen and same goes for the seller, New York orthopedic surgeon and collector of French art Ronald Grelsamer.

Grelsamer says he received it from his father as a gift. Sotheby’s describes him as “shocked” that it was stolen; he hasn’t made any statements to the press about the painting, much less about how his father might have gotten his hands on it. He actually has the right to file a claim for compensation from the French government, believe it or not, although the Sotheby’s estimate doesn’t put it in the astronomical Impressionist value range so hopefully he’ll refrain.

The 6.25-inch-by-8.5-inch piece — painted between 1870 and 1872 — has an estimated value of $350,000 to $450,000, the statement said, quoting the company catalogue.

The painting reflects a break from the academic focus of Degas’ early years when he dedicated himself to the “search for the essence of modern life,” said Sotheby’s spokeswoman Lauren Gioai.

“The 1870s gave rise to some of Degas most celebrated works,” she said.

The painting wasn’t in the Art Loss Register or any of the other theft recovery databases Sotheby’s consulted. There was, however, a stencil on the back of the canvas, “RF 1953-8,” marking it as the eighth work of art acquired by the French Republic in 1953. Also, the catalog entry mentioned the painting’s illustrious provenance, having been first owned by Madame Jeantaud, thought to have been a model for another work by Degas, and then by Carle Dreyfus, a well-known collector and one of the first curators of the Decorative Arts department at the Louvre. Upon his death in 1952, Dreyfus bequeathed the painting to the Louvre who put the registration marks on the back. That last step in the painting’s history, however, didn’t make it into the catalog.

André Malraux, France’s first Minister of Cultural Affairs under Charles de Gaulle (1959–1969), loaned the painting to the museum because it was the first French art institution rebuilt and reopened after its destruction in World War II. The Degas was the first government-owned painting placed in the museum, so not only does it have immense cultural value because it’s a beautiful late period Degas, but also because it played an important symbolic part in the cultural revival of post-war France.

Malraux Museum director Annette Haudiquet expects the painting will return to France within the next month, but it hasn’t been determined yet whether it will go back to the Normandy museum.


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December 2021


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