During a customs check of a bus along a highway outside Paris, agents found a stolen Edward Degas painting inside a suitcase. None of the passengers would claim it.

Marc Bonodot/French Customs/AP

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Marc Bonodot/French Customs/AP

In December 2009, a small painting by Edward Degas was quietly stolen from the Cantini museum in Marseille. Museum staff discovered Les Choristes was missing when they arrived in the morning, and the prosecutor suggested it could be an inside job: the painting had been unscrewed from the wall and there was no evidence of a break-in.

An investigation was launched, but nine years went by and the painting — worth an estimated $1 million — wasn’t seen again.

Until last Friday, when French customs agents happened to check a bus parked at a highway stop about 18 miles east of Paris.

The officers opened a suitcase in the luggage compartment, and there it was: vibrant pastels in red, orange, and yellow, depicting a chorus from the opera Don Juan. In the lower left hand corner: Degas’ signature.

The agents asked the bus passengers who owned the suitcase. No one claimed it.

#DegasDanseDessin#Degas
On a retrouvé Les Choristes, le tableau volé de Degas
Récit : @BOUGAULTManonpic.twitter.com/YFN0WqRtbZ

— JT du WE de France 3 (@JTweFrance3) February 23, 2018

France Culture Minister Françoise Nyssen called the find a “happy rediscovery of a precious work belonging to the national collections, whose disappearance represented a heavy loss for French impressionist heritage.”

Experts at the Musée d’Orsay, which had loaned the work to the Cantini, confirmed its authenticity. The museum tweeted that it was “delighted” by the painting’s recovery.

As the culture ministy explains, Les Choristes is a monotype: “A printing process that is halfway between painting and engraving. The artist made an ink composition, brushed on a metal plate, before putting this plate in press.” It is the only of the ballet-obsessed artist’s opera-inspired works that doesn’t depict dancers.

Next year, the Musée d’Orsay will show an exhibit called Degas at the Opera. “It would have been a terrible loss for us to do it without this painting,” a museum spokeswoman told the AFP.

French customs says it handled 71 cases in 2016, seizing more than 10,000 works of art, including coins and artifacts. That year, customs officers at the Roissy airport in Paris seized two 14th– and 16th-century marble bas-reliefs that Louvre conservators identified as likely looted from Syria.

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