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Picasso: US returns stolen artwork to France

The United States on Thursday returned to French authorities an oil painting by Pablo Picasso thought to be worth €15 million, that was reported stolen from a major Paris museum 14 years ago.

Picasso: US returns stolen artwork to France
"The Hairdresser" - finally back in French hands after being stolen 14 years ago. Photo: AFP

“The Hairdresser,” which Picasso created in Paris in 1911 during his Cubism period, was seized by US customs agents in New Jersey.

Valued at $15 million, it was authenticated in January by experts from the Centre Georges Pompidou museum, its previous home.

“Picasso used to say: 'A painting truly exists in the eyes of the beholder',” said Frederic Dore, deputy chief of mission at the French embassy in Washington, where the painting was formally handed over.

Once back in the French capital, the diplomat said, it will “come back to life” and return to public view after careful restoration “thanks to this outstanding Franco-American customs cooperation.”

The painting had been listed on Interpol's database of stolen works of art since it was reported stolen from the Centre Pompidou's archives in 2001.

It had last been publicly displayed in Munich, Germany in 1998 — and no one is clear on where it has been since US customs agents came across it during a targeted inspection in Newark, New Jersey, just outside New York, in December 2014.

Wrapped as a Christmas parcel sent from Belgium, it bore a shipping label that claimed it was a mere $30 handicraft, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency said.

No arrests have been made.

“It's truly priceless (and) so meaningful — not just to your country, but to the world,” said ICE director Sarah Saldana at the handover ceremony.

“We are committed to extracting stolen cultural property from the grasp of the black market and restoring it to its rightful owners,” added Kelly Currie, the US federal prosecutor for the eastern district of New York, in a statement.

“The Hairdresser” entered the Centre Pompidou's collection in 1967, donated by French art collector Georges Salles, who specialized in Cubist works.

It had previously belonged to French art dealer Ambroise Vollard, who played a major role in promoting Picasso and other early 20th century artists.

Dore said it was the fourth piece of art that the US authorities have returned to France since 2011.

Another Picasso worth over €25 million ($27.9 million), seized from a yacht off the French island of Corsica, was transferred Tuesday to a Madrid museum.

That 1906 painting entitled “Head of a Young Woman,” which was subject to a Spanish export ban, had been seized by French customs at the end of July, halting what they said was .

Picasso died in France in 1973 at the age of 91, leaving behind a vast and influential body of work including paintings, sculptures and ceramics.

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ARCHITECTURE

Futuristic Gehry tower opens in World Heritage Arles

Rising high beyond an ancient Roman arena in Arles, a tall, twisted tower created by Frank Gehry shimmers in the sun, the latest futuristic addition to this southern French city known for its World Heritage sites.

Futuristic Gehry tower opens in World Heritage Arles
Gehry's Luma Tower opens in Arles, France. Photo: H I / Pixabay

The tower, which opens to the public on Saturday, is the flagship attraction of a new “creative campus” conceived by the Swiss Luma arts foundation that wants to offer artists a space to create, collaborate and showcase their work.

Gehry, the 92-year-old brain behind Bilbao’s Guggenheim museum and Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall, wrapped 11,000 stainless steel panels around his tower above a huge glass round base.

It will house contemporary art exhibitions, a library, and offices, while the Luma Arles campus as a whole will host conferences and live performances.

From a distance, the structure reflects the changing lights of this town that inspired Van Gogh, capturing the whiteness of the limestone Alpilles mountain range nearby which glows a fierce orange when the sun sets.

Mustapha Bouhayati, the head of Luma Arles, says the town is no stranger to
imposing monuments; its ancient Roman arena and theatre have long drawn the
crowds.

The tower is just the latest addition, he says. “We’re building the heritage of tomorrow.”

Luma Arles spreads out over a huge former industrial wasteland.

Maja Hoffmann, a Swiss patron of the arts who created the foundation, says
the site took seven years to build and many more years to conceive.

Maja Hoffmann, founder and president of the Luma Foundation. Photo: Pascal GUYOT / AFP

Aside from the tower, Luma Arles also has exhibition and performance spaces in former industrial buildings, a phosphorescent skatepark created by South Korean artist Koo Jeong A and a sprawling public park conceived by Belgian landscape architect Bas Smets.

‘Arles chose me’

The wealthy great-granddaughter of a founder of Swiss drug giant Roche, Hoffmann has for years been involved in the world of contemporary art, like her grandmother before her.

A documentary producer and arts collector, she owns photos by Annie Leibovitz and Diane Arbus and says she hung out with Jean-Michel Basquiat in New York.

Her foundation’s stated aim is to promote artists and their work, with a special interest in environmental issues, human rights, education and culture.

She refuses to answer a question on how much the project in Arles cost. But as to why she chose the 53,000-strong town, Hoffmann responds: “I did not choose Arles, Arles chose me.”

She moved there as a baby when her father Luc Hoffmann, who co-founded WWF,
created a reserve to preserve the biodiversity of the Camargue, a region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Rhone river delta known for its pink flamingos.

The tower reflects that, with Camargue salt used as mural panels and the
delta’s algae as textile dye.

Hoffmann says she wants her project to attract more visitors in the winter, in a town where nearly a quarter of the population lives under the poverty line.

Some 190 people will be working at the Luma project over the summer, Bouhayati says, adding that Hoffman has created an “ecosystem for creation”.

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