Françoise Nyssen, Minister of Culture, and Gérald Darmanin, Minister of Action and Public Accounts, welcome the discovery by the customs officers of Marne-la-Vallée of a work by Edgar Degas, The Choristers, concealed in the baggage compartment of a bus. This composition, made by the artist in 1877, was stolen in 2009 in Marseille, on the premises of the Cantini Museum, which had hosted the painting loaned by the Musée d'Orsay. The investigation conducted after this theft by the Central Office for Combating Trafficking in Cultural Property (OCBC) unfortunately did not find the work.
On Friday, February 16, the agents of the customs brigade of Marne-la-Vallée checked a bus parked on the motorway area of Ferrières-en-Brie, in Seine-et-Marne. On this occasion, they discovered in a suitcase a work bearing the signature «Degas», for which none of the passengers identified themselves as the owner. The customs officers then seized the painting and requested the expertise of the Musée d'Orsay to confirm its authenticity. The first elements of the expertise allow us to affirm that this is the work sought.
In a conversation with Daniel Halévy, Degas said that this pastel represented a scene of the opera Don Juan. The only work by Degas inspired by an opera that did not include dancers, The Choristers would show the final chorus of the first act, which celebrates the engagement of Masetto and Zerlina.
Also entitled The Extras, this work is a monotype, an engraving process that is halfway between painting and engraving. The artist made a composition in ink, applied with a brush on a metal plate, before pressing this plate. This technique makes it possible to draw only one good proof of the composition thus executed, only Degas has, here, taken up in pastel, associating the liveliness of the colors of this medium, worked in shades mastered of red, orange and yellow, with a dark background that enhances the contrast.
Degas began making monotypes around 1876-1877 and quickly exhibited them. The Choristers were presented at the Impressionist exhibition of 1877 and did not go unnoticed in the eyes of critics, who stressed both its cruel realism and its bold layout. The Choristers entered the collection of Gustave Caillebotte before the Impressionist exhibition of 1877, and in the French national collections thanks to the Caillebotte legacy in 1894.
Françoise Nyssen welcomes this happy rediscovery of a precious work belonging to the national collections, whose disappearance represented a heavy loss for the French impressionist heritage, and pays tribute to the action of the customs, complementary in the fight against the trafficking of cultural goods in all its forms to that of the heritage services of the Ministry of Culture».
The Minister of Culture recalls that 2017 was the centenary of Degas' death and that the exhibition Degas Dance Drawing. Tribute to Degas with Paul Valéry will have welcomed more than 400,000 visitors to the Musée d'Orsay. Finally, it announces that the pastel Chorus singers will have a special place in the exhibition Degas at the Opera programmed at the Musée d'Orsay in September 2019 (from 23 Sept 2019 to 19 January 2020).
Gérald Darmanin praised «the constant vigilance of the customs in the fight against the traffic of cultural goods and its commitment in the protection of cultural heritage».
In 2018, the European Year of Cultural Heritage, the mobilization of customs officers will continue and we will work to achieve a renewed European control system.”
In 2016, French customs handled 71 cases across the country involving cultural property and seized more than 10,000 works of art, including ancient coins and archaeological objects.
In October 2017, eight Egyptian antiquities over 3,000 years old, discovered by customs officers at the Gare du Nord in the luggage of a British resident, were returned to the Egyptian authorities. In July 2015, it was the customs officers of Calvi who had intercepted on board a sailboat a Picasso painting entitled Maiden’s head in Switzerland, and returned to the Spanish authorities in consultation with the Ministry of Culture.
Similarly, the customs authorities are fighting against the trafficking of cultural goods from sensitive areas, which are likely to finance terrorism. In March 2016, the Roissy customs officers seized two marble bas-reliefs from the 14th and 16th centuries, identified as such with the help of the curators of the Louvre Museum and probably from the looting of Syrian heritage.