WASHINGTON — A little-known, even insignificant, Renoir painting now has a whole lot more cachet after a mysterious series of events – including its long-ago disappearance from the Baltimore Museum of Art, the story of its recent discovery at a flea market, and its seizure by the FBI – culminated Friday in a federal judge’s decision to return it to the museum.
District Judge Leonie Brinkema in Alexandria, Va., ruled in favor of the Baltimore Museum of Art, deciding that the Renoir supposedly bought at a West Virginia flea market rightfully belonged to the museum and not to the buyer, Marcia “Martha” Fuqua. The judge accepted the museum’s request for summary judgment and canceled a trial that had been scheduled to begin next week.
The painting, “Paysage Bords de Seine,” or “On the Shore of the Seine,” was painted on a linen napkin. The lore is that Pierre-Auguste Renoir was at lunch by the Seine River in Paris with his mistress when he grabbed the napkin and painted her a keepsake.
Baltimore art lover Saidie May bought the painting in Paris in 1926, and it was on loan to the museum when it disappeared. May bequeathed much of her artworks to the museum and paid for a wing that’s named in her honor.
“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,” museum spokeswoman Anne Mannix-Brown said in a statement. “Pending an appeal, we look forward to celebrating the painting’s homecoming with a special installation in the galleries in late March.”
Dana Boente, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said in a statement that his office, which represented the government as the caretaker of the painting, was pleased with the decision.
“The court’s ruling today will ensure that the painting is returned to its rightful owner,” he said.
The painting surfaced in 2012 when Fuqua put it up for auction through the Alexandria appraisal firm The Potomack Co., which estimated its value at $100,000. Questions swirled around the artwork and its lack of provenance until a Washington Post reporter, searching museum records that officials had missed, learned that it had been on loan to the museum when it was stolen in 1951.
The museum immediately claimed ownership, the auction house called off the sale and the FBI seized the Renoir. Fuqua sued for ownership, and the case has been tied up in federal court for over a year. Her attorney didn’t return a request for comment.
The story had numerous complications, including the claim of an insurance company, the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Co., which had insured the painting and paid a claim for it at the time, for $2,500. But the insurer yielded its claim to the museum, so that the public could enjoy the Renoir.
At the time of the auction in the fall of 2012, the painting’s value was set at $100,000, although an art appraiser in the case had set it at only $22,000. Now, with all the attendant controversy and its colorful history, the little Renoir’s worth as a fascinating art world curiosity might prove hard to measure.