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.
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.