Press Center

 STATEMENT OF TREASURY SECRETARY PAUL O'NEILL AT CUSTOMS ART REPATRIATION EVENT


7/19/2001

Good morning. It is my pleasure to welcome all of you here for the return of some very historic and very valuable drawings by the old masters to their rightful home in Bremen, Germany.

Welcome, Mr. Ambassador. I'm so glad you could be here today.

The Treasury Department's diverse law enforcement responsibilities include combating the trafficking in stolen art and antiquities across the borders of the United States. When stolen treasures are smuggled into the U.S., we do all we can to return them to their rightful owners, and to bring any wrongdoers to justice. We take our responsibility very seriously, and today we are happy to celebrate a victory in that regard.

The remarkable drawings being repatriated to Germany today had been missing from the Bremen museum for over 50 years. Among them are works by Rembrandt and Jacob van Ruisdael. The experts agree, however, that the real star of the collection is this small, late 15 th Century drawing of "Women's Bath" by the seminal German artist Albrecht Dürer. It alone has been valued at $10 million.

The drawings were among the masterpieces that the Bremen Museum stored in a castle for safekeeping in 1943. Toward the end of World War Two, Soviet troops occupied the castle. Thereafter, the drawings found their way to the former Soviet Union, and by 1947 were in the hands of the KGB. The drawings didn't surface again until 1993, when the National Fine Arts Museum of Baku, Azerbaijan announced plans to exhibit them.

That's when the Bremen Museum in Germany asserted its ownership. But before they could be returned, the drawings were stolen from the museum in Azerbaijan, along with 180 other works.

In 1997 this tale became a web of intrigue worthy of Hitchcock. The drawings surfaced briefly in New York when U.S. Customs agents foiled an attempt to extort $6 million for their return to the Bremen Museum.

The drawings were seized, and a Japanese businessman and a former Azerbaijan prosecutor were arrested: one in a room of the Grand Hyatt Hotel on East 42 nd Street; and the other near Washington Square Park, where she had led Customs agents on a high speed chase.

The 12 drawings belonging to Germany's Bremen Museum and 180 others belonging to the museum in Azerbaijan had been stashed, in a closet and under a bed, in an apartment on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. The drawings and prints belonging to Azerbaijan were returned last month.

I want to commend Customs Special Agent Bonnie Goldblatt for her work on this particular case. Let me also acknowledge the ongoing efforts by the entire Customs Art Recovery Team, led by Tom Caso, here in New York. I also want to recognize the support the team receives from the Office of Associate Chief Counsel.

Cooperation between the Treasury Department and the Justice Department has been a hallmark of these art repatriation cases. Cooperation and ability to get the job done could not be better than it is here in New York. That speaks well of the Special Agent in Charge in New York led, Joe Webber; and, of course, of the hard-working U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Mary Jo White.

Thank you for everything you do, and for the outstanding work in this case by Assistant U.S. Attorney Alexander Shapiro, former Assistant Steven Heineman and by Maxine Pfeffer. Commissioner Winwood mentioned Ms. Pfeffer's untimely death, which, I know, makes this a bittersweet occasion, especially for those of you who worked closely with her.

You can all be very proud of the work you accomplished in this outstanding case.

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