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U.S. to return recovered Degas to France

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NEW YORK — An Edgar Degas painting that was stolen 37 years ago and recently rediscovered before an auction in New York will be returned to the French government, U.S. officials said Thursday.

U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch and James T. Hayes Jr., head of the New York office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, announced that a Manhattan seller had agreed to turn over the painting, "Laundry Woman with Toothache," without a forfeiture proceeding.

Sotheby's had given the small oil portrait of a young woman holding her jaw an estimated value of $350,000 to $450,000.

Court papers said the seller, whose father had obtained the signed piece, didn't know it was stolen. The family has the right to file a claim for compensation from French authorities.

The return of the rare 19th century work "reflects our commitment to ensure the return of stolen artwork and cultural patrimony," Lynch said in a statement.

Sotheby's official Diana Phillips said the auction house "is happy to have been able to be involved in this discovery and we are pleased that this painting will be returned to the government of France."

The seller, she added, "was shocked to learn about this and throughout has been extremely cooperative."

Authorities said Degas painted "Blanchisseuses Souffrant Des Dents" in the early 1870s. A collector donated it to the French government and it was registered with the Louvre Museum.

In 1961, the Louvre lent the painting to the Malraux Museum in Normandy. In late 1973, a still-unknown thief pulled it off the museum wall and slipped away.

Earlier this year, Sotheby's featured the painting in the catalog for a sale of impressionist art. A Malraux employee spotted the listing and notified Sotheby's, which immediately pulled it from the auction.

Stenciled on the back of the canvas but hidden by the frame was "RF 1953-8" — shorthand for it being the eighth work of art acquired by the French Republic in 1953.

Phillips said Thursday that before the auction, Sotheby's had checked to see if the piece was listed on the London-based Art Loss Register — which tracks stolen, looted or missing art — and similar databases.

"Unfortunately, this painting was not listed in these databases so Sotheby's had no evidence that it had been stolen when it accepted the painting for sale," she said.