La Coiffeuse Pablo Picasso
Painting La Coiffeuse by Pablo Picasso was stolen from a Paris museum. US Department of Justice

A stolen Picasso painting valued at millions of dollars was shipped via courier "disguised" as a £21 Christmas present in a botched attempt to smuggle it into the US from Europe.

The 1911 cubist canvas "La Coiffeuse" (English for "The Hairdresser") by the Spanish master disappeared from a French museum in 2001.

It resurfaced in December last year in New York, in the form of a FedEx package from Belgium described in the label as an "art craft/toy," worth €30 (£21), US authorities said.

The tag also read "Joyeux Noel" (French for "Happy Christmas") suggesting the shipment was a present.

It nevertheless raised the suspicion of border agents that opened it to find the missing masterpiece belonging to the French government.

French museum officials confirmed that the 33 by 46cm oil-on-canvas painting was indeed the same painting that was stolen from a store room of the Centre Georges Pompidou 14 years ago.

"A lost treasure has been found," US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Loretta E. Lynch, said, describing the case as a "blatant smuggling" attempt.

Lynch said a civil complaint to forfeit the artwork and return it to France has been filed.

"The recovery of the La Coiffeuse sends a strong message to thieves that the market to sell stolen antiquities in the United States is drying up," US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, agent Anthony Scandiffio said.

La Coiffeuse was last seen by the general public in 1998 in Munich, Germany, where it was exhibited on loan from the Musée National d'Art Moderne in Paris.

Upon its return in the French capital, the painting that was bequeathed to the National Museums of France by its former director Georges Salles was placed in a storage facility at the Centre Pompidou.

It was discovered to have been stolen in November 2001, after museum staff responding to a loan request could not find it.

US authorities said the painting's current market value is estimated to be in the millions of dollars, with the New York Times putting the figure at $2.5m (£1.6m).

According to reports the shipment was sent by someone named "Robert". Authorities did not release the name of the person the painting was addressed to or say whether anyone has been arrested in connection to the case.