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Picasso painting stolen 20 years ago found by 'Indiana Jones of art'

“Buste de Femme” vanished from a wealthy Saudi’s yacht in France and was likely used as capital in underground arms or drug trade.
Image: Dutch art detective Arthur Brand posing with stolen Picasso painting Buste de Femme (Dora Maar)
Dutch art detective Arthur Brand with a recently recovered Picasso painting, "Buste de Femme," at his Amsterdam home.AFP - Getty Images

A Pablo Picasso painting, stolen more than 20 years ago and worth more than $28 million, has been found by a renowned Dutch art sleuth.

The 1938 painting “Buste de Femme” was swiped off a wealthy Saudi’s yacht in France, before Arthur Brand, known as the art world's most tireless detective, finally hunted it down two weeks ago.

After peeling away two plastic bags that covered the work, Brand said he immediately know it was the real deal.

“You know it’s a Picasso because there is some magic coming off it,” Brand told The Associated Press.

Since the work was swiped off a luxury boat in the swanky French Riviera port of Antibes in 1999, multiple forgeries had been offered to insurers and found to be fake.

Brand, whose sleuthing has earned him the moniker the "Indiana Jones of art," said pieces of fine art have distinct markings on the back and the work he uncovered matched the missing Picasso.

“But a forger never knows how the back looks,” Brand said, without disclosing the tell-tale detail. “When I saw the back of the painting, I knew it was the real one.”

The art hunter couldn't trace every step of the painting's movement over the past two decades.

“Finally, I tracked somebody down who had had it in his possession 10 years ago,” he said. “And then it still took me three years to get near it.”

Brand believes the painting has probably been passed around shadowy figures in the criminal underground of Amsterdam.

“It was used as some kind of money as payment for drug and arms deals,” said Brand, who once recovered a pair of bronze horses sculpted for Hitler.

The work finally made it to a person, who contacted Brand to turn it over. The art sleuth has given it to an insurance company and it wasn't immediately clear what would happen to it.

The painting was among 750 pieces of Picasso's art listed as stolen or missing on the Art Loss Register, according to company founder Julian Radcliffe.

“Picasso is stolen so often because it is a very well-known, well-traded artist," Radcliffe told NBC News. "I mean in a year, there might be 20 or 30 Picassos sold and that means that people know they can be turned into money, at least theoretically. The problem is that if they are recognized, they can’t be turned into money.”

Finding stolen art is no easy task.

"If you take 100 pictures stolen 20 years ago, only about 20 percent of them have been recovered," Radcliffe said. "So the question is what has happened to the other 80 percent? And the answer is some are held by the criminals as a negotiating tactic. Unfortunately, a significant percentage have been damaged or destroyed because they got too hot to hold or are hidden by a criminal."

Martin Finkelnberg, head of the Dutch national police’s art and antique criminality team, said he welcomed the painting's return. He noted no arrests have been made.

“Done. Everybody happy,” Finkelnberg told the Dutch national daily De Volkskrant. “The most important thing is that the artwork is back.”