An attempt to export the painting, “Head of a Young Woman”, to Switzerland on Thursday “drew the attention of French officials”, the country's customs authority said in a statement, with customs agents on the French island boarding the vessel the following day.
The ship's captain could only present two documents regarding the work of art, the statement said – one of which was a May 2015 Spanish court judgement labelling the painting a work of art and ordering that it not be taken out of the country.
The painting, which French customs said was valued at “more than €25 million”, ($27.4 million) is owned by Jaime Botín, a well-known Spanish banker whose family was involved in the Santander banking group in 1857.
Head of a Young Woman by Pablo Picasso Photo: AFP
The 79-year-old, who was formerly the banking giant's vice chairman, was not aboard the vessel, which was owned by the company and flying a British flag, a customs authority spokesman said.
According to the spokesman, the export demand was also not in Botín's name.
An export demand was filed for the painting in December 2012 to move it to London, but was opposed by Spain's culture minister.
This year, a Spanish court sided with the authorities and declared the work of art “unexportable” on the grounds that it was of “cultural interest” and could not leave the country.
French customs officials are now awaiting an official Spanish request to recover the painting.
Spanish police confirmed that “an inquiry has been ongoing for some time” but declined to give further details.