Baltimore wins legal fight to regain its Renoir
Court rules over painting stolen in 1951 that turned up in a flea market
By Laura Gilbert. Web only
Published online: 10 January 2014
A landscape painting by Renoir, purportedly bought by Marcia Fuqua at a flea market for $7, belongs to the Baltimore Museum of Art, from which it had been stolen in 1951, the federal court in Virginia ruled today, 10 January.
So ended a wild tale that began 27 July 2012 when Fuqua brought On the Shore of the Seine, to the Potomack Company auction house in Arlington, Virginia, saying she found it in a box of random items at a Shenandoah Valley flea market. She made an appointment with the auction house because of the “Renoir” plaque on the frame, according to Elizabeth Wainstein, the director of the auction house.
Potomack determined the work was authentic and checked the Art Loss Register and the FBI’s stolen art website to confirm that it had not been reported lost or stolen. A spokeswoman for the museum points out that the FBI was not concentrating on stolen art in the 1950s and registers of lost art did not exist.
Potomack announced that the spectacular find would be sold on 29 September 2012 with an estimate of $75,000-$100,000. On a press release it noted that the work had once been owned by Herbert L. May, husband of Saidie Adler May, a major donor of art to the Baltimore museum. The museum's communications director, Anne Mannix-Brown, recognised May’s name and forwarded the announcement to the institutions curators. “We searched our electronic records and didn’t find anything, and then it fell through the cracks,” she says.
Meanwhile, the story of the flea-market Renoir lit up the press and Ian Shapira of the Washington Post began an investigation. He found a document in the museum's library indicating that the painting had been loaned for a 1937 exhibition.
The list had a loan number. From that the museum investigated further and found an index card stating the painting had been stolen while on loan in 1951. At the time, Sadie May’s will was in probate, says Mannix-Brown. May had bequeathed her art to the museum.
Three day's before the sale the museum told Potomack the Renoir was stolen and Wainstein informed the FBI. The auction house then withdrew the painting, which was seized by the FBI
Last March, the US Attorney for Virginia started a court action to resolve the competing claims. Fireman’s Fund Insurance, which paid the museum $2500 for the lost work in 1952, would technically own the Renoir, but it has given up any claim. Potomack has also disclaimed any interest in the work.
That left Fuqua to fight it out with the museum.
As far as the museum is concerned, all that mattered was whether someone stole the work. Under established US law, “A thief cannot pass title to stolen goods even to an innocent purchaser,” it argued to the court. So if the Renoir was stolen, Fuqua could not have good title to it, even if she bought it in good faith. The court agreed.
After a 30-day window for Fuqua to appeal the court’s decision, the museum hopes to take possession of the painting. “We would have it examined by conservation, putting it on view in March,” says Mannix-Brown. As for the story that Renoir painted it on the banks of the Seine for his fiancée, “That’s a legend. We would do more research on that,” she says.
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