An illustration by Degas that was stolen by Nazis and returned to its rightful owner Vivian Drefus in May, sold at auction in Paris for €462,500 last night. France’s culture minister Audrey Azoulay explained that the illustration, Trois Danseuses en Buste (pictured), was stolen in 1940 from the Paris home of Maurice Dreyfus, a doctor; and disappeared from sight until 1951 when it was discovered in a closet of the former German embassy in Paris. On its rediscovery it was donated to the Louvre, having been registered as MNR, for “musées nationaux récupération” (national museums recovery) and placed under the legal responsibility of the French foreign ministry; before the Dreyfus family were cited as its rightful owners.

There are 2,000 other unclaimed works in French museums, of which at least 145 were stolen by the Nazis. The Drefus case is part of a new process used by the culture ministry, where, instead of waiting for heirs or relatives to reclaim works, the ministry now works with a team of geneologists to help find the rightful owners. Maurice Drefus died in 1957, without ever mentioning the historic work. Dreyfus’s daughter, Viviane, told AFP: “We received a gift from heaven when we learned that they found the Degas drawing …It’s as if my father gave us a gift from beyond the grave. We are very moved.” The drawing is a charcoal sketch of three ballerinas and had been valued between €350,000 and €450,000. An Italian collector purchased the 1898 drawing by telephone, according to the Osenat auction house in Fontainebleau near Paris.