A $7 Renoir (but that’s not the whole story)

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In 2010, a Virginia woman named Martha Fuqua purchased a small, napkin-sized painting for $7. She liked the frame, she said, but claimed to have no knowledge of art and, despite the name plate beneath the painting displaying “Renoir,” had no inkling the painting could be authentic. It was an Impressionist painting, depicting overgrown brush along the shore of a body of water. Two years later, Fuqua took the painting to an auction house in Alexandria, Virginia, at the urging of her mother, who was convinced the Renoir was legitimate. What a find, right? A $7 Renoir at a flea market!

Well. The auction house did in fact verify it as an authentic Renoir, painted in 1879 and titled “Paysage Bords de Seine,” and valued the small painting, just 5″ x 9″, at close to $100,000. Once the auction house began investigating the painting’s provenance, things got interesting. Before Fuqua could even get comfortable with the idea of cashing in, the Baltimore Museum of Art came forward in September of 2012 and said the painting had in fact been stolen from them in 1951.

“Paysage Bords de Seine” was given to the museum by Sadie May, a collector and benefactor, who bought the painting in Paris in 1926 from the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery. She loaned the painting, along with several others, to the museum in 1937. She died in 1951, the same year the painting was reported stolen from the exhibit, and her paintings were willed to the museum after her death.

Initially, the BMA had no record of the painting ever being in their collection. I don’t even want to focus on that impressively stupid lack of oversight, other than to say I sincerely hope they’ve since ramped up security. It wasn’t until an industrious journalist from the Washington Post, named Ian Shapira (a future Pulitzer Prize winner if there ever was one), began digging through their archived files that they came across the loan record from Sadie May. Once the museum had the loan registration number, it was able to sort through more old files and find the original document noting it had been not only loaned to the BMA by Sadie May, but also stolen on November 17, 1951.

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The Baltimore police department was able to uncover the original police report as well, in time to put a stop to the scheduled auction Fuqua had hoped would lead to a big payday. The FBI seized the painting while the legal aspects of ownership could be cleared up.

Now, let’s recall that Fuqua claimed to have no understanding of art and was unable to recognize the Renoir as being authentic when she first spotted it at the Harpers Ferry Flea Market. It was only at her mother’s insistence that she took it to be appraised at all. Her mother, Marcia, who, it turns out, was a painter, and had earned a fine arts degree at Goucher College in 1952 and a master’s from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1957. Marcia, who later taught art classes in a studio behind her house, where she taught students to recreate famous works of art, including Renoir…at which her daughter sometimes worked, too.

Since the story broke, multiple people (including Fuqua’s own brother!) came forward claiming to have seen the painting in the Fuqua home as early as the 1980s. There was her mother’s ex-boyfriend, who was quoted in May of 2013 as saying, “She said it came from a museum in Baltimore…She said it was a real Renoir, that she owned a Renoir. . . .She never told me how she acquired it.” There was the family friend, who stopped by the borrow some canvases in the 1990s, and remembers, “All of her paintings on the walls didn’t have frames. But this one had a fancy frame and said, ‘Renoir.’ It had a hangover light on it.” The Harpers Ferry Flea Market story suddenly had trouble holding up.

Marcia Fuqua (who went by Marcia Fouquet professionally, a nod to a French ancestor) died a few months ago at the age of 85. The true story of the Renoir likely died along with her, leaving her daughter and son battling over contesting accounts of the painting’s provenance.

Last Friday, a federal judge for U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia dismissed Martha Fuqua’s claim of ownership, and ruled that the painting must be returned to the Baltimore Museum of Art. “The museum has put forth an extensive amount of documentary evidence that the painting was stolen,” the judge told Fuqua and her attorney. “You still have no evidence – no evidence – that this wasn’t stolen.” The judge noted that “a property title cannot be transferred if it resulted from a theft.”

The BMA’s director, Doreen Bolger, said the painting could go on exhibit as early as March, in a show with other pieces from the Sadie May collection. “It’ll be anchored to the wall,” she said. The museum might also provide handouts for exhibit visitors, so they can view the Renoir and read all about the case at the same time. I guess I’ll be taking a trip to Baltimore this spring.

PS. More art heists posts.

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January 14, 2014 / art / photo / Art Heist / LEAVE A COMMENT / 18

18 comments

  • We just talked about going to Baltimore for my birthday in March. How convenient……
    Oh, and Greedy Beeeee-otch!

    • You HAVE to go and see it if you’re there. I’m dying to see it in person now. And yeah, when the lady was reached for comment on Friday after the verdict, Okay, lady. xo

  • I saw this story the other day! The article was worded in a way that was sympathetic towards the woman, but I must admit her whole story is sounding pretty shady now

    • I hadn’t realized this story had been around as long as it had! She was only identified as “Renoir Girl” for about a year, before they named her. This saga went on for well over a year! So crazy, but I’m happy to see it returned to the museum. xo

  • hmm, i wonder. did the mother have it the whole time? did the daughter buy it at a flea market? did the mom set up the daughter to do all that? or did the daughter want to cash it in? did their friends and family just really want to be apart of the story so they “remembered” seeing it year prior? where is the person who supposedly sold it to the daughter? so many questions! really, it would be so crushing to buy a $7 painting, find out it was worth $100,000 then find out it was stolen and have it seized. that would suck so badly. so i kind of hope that’s not the real story.

    • We’ll never know if the mother had it the whole time, if she stole it, had someone steal it for her, or if the daughter really did buy it at the flea market. The person who sold it to her would certainly have remembered it once the painting made national news, don’t you think? No one has come forward to corroborate her side of the story, and the judge pointed that out. We’ll never know, it’s all speculation (I don’t want to get sued for libel! haha) but at the end of the day the painting is being returned to the museum, and that’s amazing. That’s the best ending we could have hoped for. I wouldn’t feel too traumatized if it had happened to me. How cool would it have been to uncover that piece of lost art history??I’d feel like a hero. xo

  • what a story :) nothing really adds up, does it. how intriguing. I love stuff like that!!

    • It’s a pretty fascinating tale! I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled at flea markets from now on, that’s for sure :) xo

  • This story has been all over the news in the past day or so here in VA. It’s fascinating, isn’t it? I love the “Oh, I don’t know about art…” she said airily, aspect. But if it weren’t shady, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun!

    • It didn’t make the news here, which I found surprising! I thought I was good about keeping my eye out for art stories like these, but I missed a whole year of the saga and only caught the tail-end. I’m happy with the resolution, though. Now the painting can be enjoyed by everyone, just like the benefactor of the museum originally intended. xo

  • this is remarkable. what a story. it almost seems that perhaps this little old lady, when she wasn’t so old, could have stolen the painting herself? either way, i love these art heists more and more. this is the kind of drama i enjoy reading!

    • We’ll never know! The judge pointed out that the defense could offer no evidence it wasn’t stolen, but we’ll never get the details on that now that the mom died. The 50 years it was missing were unfortunate, but now it’s back where it belongs. This is my favorite kind of drama, too! xo

  • This is the most insane story I’ve heard in a long time. I mean I feel like you could make a movie out of this…with all of the twists and turns! Haha…was seriously glued to the end, so maddening that the mom died along with the whole true story most likely!

    • And this is just the quick and dirty version! This story goes way deeper and has WAY more details than I was able to include here. I mean, it’s been going on since 2012! It had so many crazy turns, right? I’m glad it had a happy ending, though! xo

  • Crazy isn’t it? I once had a client that what he did to invest his money was buy art and then when he needed the money he would go and sell the art. I always think an art heist is sort of romantic don’t you?

    • Ooh, your client sounds like James Bond or something ;) That’s the kind of wealth I want to have, though I think I’d have a problem ever parting with some pieces! And yeah, I’m pretty obsessed with art heists…so much so that I’m writing a whole book about one! Ha! xo

  • What a story! And this little painting is adorable as well (is it okay to say a Renoir is adorable?)

    • Haha, totally acceptable. It’s super tiny and was apparently painted for his mistress on a linen napkin at a restaurant as a quick present. Super romantic, right? xo