"Saidie really educated both her husbands in terms of buying art," Adler said. "Buying art and giving to museums was her whole life. If Saidie knew that the Renoir had been found in a flea market, she would have been ecstatic. She loved going to the markets and to the little old dusty shops and bargaining with the dealers and the artists."

The Mays divorced in 1927, the year after purchasing the Renoir. Chances are that the artwork stayed with Herbert May, though no one knows for certain. What happened to the painting in the intervening 85 years, and how it arrived at the West Virginia flea market, is a mystery.

But Elizabeth Haynie Wainstein, the owner of the Potomack Company, said that she is "95 percent certain" that the landscape that she will put up for auction is authentic.

"You can never say 100 percent for sure," she says. "There's always a possibility that previous authorities made a mistake."

For Wainstein, the crucial confirmation came when Craner found a listing for the work in Renoir's catalogue raisonne, or comprehensive catalog of the artist's known works. The listing was accompanied by an 86-year-old black-and-white photograph.

Because the catalog was published in 1880, while the artist was very much alive and available for consultation, Wainstein said, it's unlikely that "Paysage Bords de Seine" was painted by a follower of Renoir's rather than the master himself.

And, because the photograph matched the painting in Craner's hands down to the smallest detail — including a mark left by a historical accident — she strongly doubts that it's a forgery.

"There's even the exact same spot in the right-hand corner that looks like old fly dirt," she said.

"It isn't part of the painting itself. It was there in 1926 in this black-and-white photograph, and it's there on the painting now. That sealed the deal for me."

In addition, Craner said, because of the idiosyncratic color palette and the myriad brush strokes going every which way, this particular painting would be "a forger's nightmare."

"If I were going to forge a painting," she said, "I'd choose something simpler to copy."

Authenticating a work of art inevitably is fraught with peril. However, experts contacted by The Baltimore Sun said the Potomack Company used standard verification procedures.

For her part, the woman who found the Renoir is reeling a bit from her good luck — not to mention the media attention. In the past few days, she's been interviewed twice by the BBC. Radio stations in Finland, France and Germany are calling, and a request has just come in from Australia.

She's barely had time to think about how to spend her potential windfall, though her house could use new siding. But, she figures that someone close to her would love to see with her own eyes the river that Renoir painted.

"The first thing I'm going to do," she said, "is take my wonderful mother to France."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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