According to the BMA on January 10, 2013, “The Baltimore Museum of Art is pleased that the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Virginia has awarded ownership of the stolen Renoir painting, On the Shore of the Seine, to the Museum.”

Apparently this was all ancient history, or at least a half a century old, until quite recently when the painting was “discovered” at a flea market in West Virginia. This story reads like a novel by Dan Brown, minus the creepy monks.

THE POTOMACK COMPANY RENOIR PAYSAGE BORDS DE SEINE

In September, 2013 the Renoir painting called “Paysage Bords de Seine” or “On the Shore of the Seine” was listed for auction at The Potomack C. Auction House in Alexandria, VA by Marcia Fuqua, the flea market buyer. The auction house owner, Elizabeth Wainstein, confirmed the authenticity of the painting despite its lack of a signature and established an early sales record from 1926 in Paris. The painting was valued at approximately $100,000. After the FBI began asking questions and the impending auction received international attention in the press, the painting was removed from auction.

The painting is tiny, just 5 1/2 inches by 9 inches, and is said to have been painted in 1879 on a linen napkin during a lunch on the Seine as a keepsake for his mistress. You can’t help but picture “Luncheon of the Boating Party.” I always thought something was strange about that painting.

The stolen Renoir caper initially mirrored the modern fairy tale of finding riches under the bed, the reason that  people watch “Antiques Roadshow.” As the story unfolded, the ‘rags to riches’ tale told by Fuqua of buying the painting for $7 at a flea market appeared to be quite the opposite. Like the best mysteries, this story grew to feature a crazy cast and plot, including a wealthy Baltimore widow, an afternoon art theft, the FBI, the Fire Dept Insurance Co., and of course, our very own BMA.

Washington Post reporter Ian Shapira is credited for discovering that the painting had been exhibited at the BMA and stolen off the museum’s walls in 1951. However, the painting was first purchased by the Paris art gallery Bernheim-Jeune from ‘Madame Papillon,’ who is thought to be Alphonsine Fournaise Papillon, a figure in the artist’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party.” It was then bought in 1926 by Baltimore art collector Herbert May in 1926 from the Paris gallery. His ex-wife, Saidie A. May, loaned the painting, and 36 other objects, to the BMA in 1937.

May had intended to give the painting permanently to the museum after her death. Her Last Will and Testament instructed that The Baltimore Museum of Art be given “all my objects of art, including paintings, sculptures, textiles, furniture, antiques, antique jewelry, rugs, tapestries, mirrors, lamps, and accessories.” It also included $300,000 for a building wing devoted to the art education of children and any residual assets. The 12,000 sq. ft. Saidie A. May Young People’s Art Center opened at the BMA on March 31, 1950, but May died the following year on May 28, 1951.

The painting was reported stolen off the museum walls between 6 p.m., Friday, November 16, and 1 p.m., Saturday, November 17, 1951. It is quite possible that there was confusion as to the ownership and placement of the painting, as this was just six months after May’s passing, where it had been considered on loan while she was alive. However, records show that the BMA was paid an insurance claim of $2,500 for the loss by the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company. They then used the payment to purchase a self-portrait by Degas. The BMA has no official record of owning the painting, but it was listed in a catalog of works on loan.

The stolen painting was completely forgotten until Marcia Fuqua listed it for auction in September 2013. She claimed that she had bought it at a flea market in 2009, but several witnesses said they had seen the painting for decades in the family’s possession. After the painting was discovered to be stolen, the auction house retracted their offer to sell the painting and the FBI took possession of it.

From there, the decision for ownership was decided by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Claimants for the painting included Martha Fuqua, the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company (who paid the insurance claim to the museum in 1951), the BMA, and the heirs of Saidie May and Herbert May. Soon after, all parties relinquished their claims, and The Fireman’s Fund Insurance Co claimed said that they would have given the piece to the museum for free, anyway.

Today, on January 10, the ownership was awarded to the BMA and, pending an appeal, the painting should be returned to the museum this March.

* Author Cara Ober is the Editor at Bmoreart