In The Omnibus by the French artist Honore Daumier has been returned to the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin after being found by proceeds of crime officers late last year.
The drawing in watercolour and gouache was stolen on a Saturday afternoon in June 1992 when the gallery was open to the public and a thief ripped it from a wall.
It was valued at the time in the hundreds of thousands but gallery chiefs refused to be drawn on its value today.
Dr Barbara Dawson, appointed director of the Hugh Lane a year before the theft, suggested the discovery may have been thanks to the keen eye of detectives running a wider investigation.
“It was shocking for me at the time. It was literally pulled off the wall,” she said. “It was a very particular theft, and interesting that it was that painting that someone went for. We weren’t sure if it was a ‘magpie’ that liked to have things to look at themselves or was it stolen to order.
“We haven’t been told. Maybe it was someone who was covetous and liked to have things for their own enjoyment.”
It is understood the painting was discovered when Criminal Assets Bureau (Cab) detectives began investigating other proceeds of crime and the work was uncovered.
In The Omnibus was part of the original collection presented by Hugh Lane to the city of Dublin for the Gallery of Modern Art which first opened to the public in 1908.
Daumier was a satirist, caricaturist and renowned for his social commentary on life in France in the 1800s.
Detective Garda Philip Galvin, of the Cab, has been credited with the police work that led to the discovery.
Cab chief, Detective Chief Superintendent Eugene Corcoran, praised the work of his officers.
“The bureau is particularly pleased that as part of its investigative work in 2013, this significant piece of artwork has been recovered and restored to the gallery, having been stolen in 1992,” he said.
Based in Paris, Daumier was famous for chronicling modern French urban life.
His works began focusing on satire and he criticised the social, legal and political systems in France under King Louis Philippe.
He spent six months in jail after drawing a caricature of the monarch as Gargantua eating gold coins.
In The Omnibus shows a crowded group of workers and a young child in quiet contemplation as they travel through the city and is regarded as having a powerful resonance as social commentary. Daumier’s work is held in public collections worldwide including the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum New York and the National Gallery London.