The 1877 monotype "Les Choristes" (The Chorus Singers) by Edgar Degas is distinctive for at least two reasons.
First, the French impressionist depicted dancers so often that this work is the only operatic scene he painted that omits them.
Second, it was stolen in a mysterious December 2009 heist after thieves unscrewed it from the wall one night at Musée Cantini in Marseille, leading investigators to speculate that the theft could be an inside job.
The trail had grown cold over the years, as French customs investigators tried in vain to find the artwork, valued at more than US$1 million ($1.4m). Yet on February 16, it was not discovered at a shady auction house or the vault of an art thief, but inside a suitcase in the back of a bus at a highway stop near Paris.
Customs officials were performing a random search of the bus luggage compartment when they found a suitcase containing the work, bursting with vivid hues of orange, yellow and red, depicting chorus singers in the opera "Don Juan."
The bus was parked near Ferrières-en-Brie, a verdant area about 30km east of Paris. None of the passengers claimed the suitcase as their own, according to France's Ministry of Culture. A customs spokesperson said the find was not based on a tip, the New York Times reported. Long-distance buses in many countries, including France are often searched for possible drug transit.
The painting was confirmed authentic by Musée d'Orsay, the museum that originally loaned it to Cantini. Minister of Culture Françoise Nyssen called its recovery a "happy rediscovery" of the work. Its disappearance "represented a heavy loss for the French impressionist heritage," Nyssen said.
Degas' work is known as a monotype, or a cross between a painting and engraving. An artist creates an ink composition and brushes it on a metal plate before pressing it, the Culture Ministry said.
The find comes during a serendipitous moment, the ministry notes. Degas died a century ago this past September, and an exhibit featuring the friendship between Degas and the French poet Paul Valery wraps up tomorrow at Musée D'Orsay. The monotype will also be featured at a Degas exhibit opening next year.