By Yereth Rosen
(Reuters) - Federal prosecutors are seeking to take control of five paintings - one valued at up to $50,000 - seized in one of Alaska's biggest wildlife-trafficking cases in recent years.
Prosecutors said they hope to ultimately return the paintings to their rightful owners.
The paintings were found during last year's prosecution of two Alaskans, Jesse Leboeuf and Loretta Sternbach, who pleaded guilty in July to wildlife trafficking and weapons charges.
As part of a plea deal with prosecutors, the pair admitted to buying raw ivory and other animal body parts from Alaskan natives in an impoverished Bering Strait island village.
The couple also acknowledged trading cash, guns, ammunition, snowmobiles, cigarettes and other goods for the illegal wildlife parts, then trying to sell them over the Internet to buyers in the lower 48 states and in Alaska.
Contraband collected at the time included ivory from roughly 100 walruses, according to federal prosecutors, who called it Alaska's biggest wildlife-trafficking case in two decades.
A co-defendant, Richard Weshenfelder of Anchorage, pleaded guilty to helping Leboeuf and Sternbach sell the wildlife parts on the Internet and was sentenced to three years' probation.
The art is currently being held by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as evidence, spokesman Bruce Woods said, and releasing the paintings in civil forfeiture will allow insurers to receive them.
"Our plan at this point is to have the paintings back in the custody of the insurance company next week," he said, adding that for a federal agency that enforces wildlife-protection laws in Alaska, the paintings are unusual pieces of evidence.
"There's been things like jewelry from overseas made from parts of endangered animals, but as far as pieces of fine art, that's never happened, as far as I can remember," Woods said.
Although most of his criminal activity involved illegal trade in Arctic wildlife, Leboeuf appeared convinced that sale of the stolen paintings would yield him a small fortune, according to an affidavit filed on Tuesday by a Fish and Wildlife Service investigator.
Leboeuf told an undercover agent in 2010 the paintings, which he said were stolen by his half-brother and some cousins from a collector in Connecticut, were worth a total of $1 million, according to the affidavit.
(Reporting by Cynthia Johnston; editing by Todd Eastham)
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