A painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir that was recently rediscovered appears to have been stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1951.
As a result of the discovery, the FBI has begun an investigation, and an auction scheduled for Saturday morning in northern Virginia has been canceled.
"Paysage Bords de Seine," a 6x10 inch view of the Seine River dating from 1879, attracted worldwide interest a few weeks ago, in part because of the romantic story behind the artwork's discovery. According to the Washington-area auction house in charge of selling the canvas, the painting had been purchased from a flea market in West Virginia as part of a $7 box of items that included a plastic cow and a Paul Bunyan doll.
Museum director Doreen Bolger said this month that Renoir's painting had never been exhibited in the institution's galleries — but has since discovered that the truth was quite different.
"When I found out that the painting had been stolen from our museum, I took a very loud, gasplike breath," Bolger said Thursday.
"We didn't know that the painting had ever been here. We didn't know that it was stolen at the exact time that [former owner] Saidie May's estate was being probated. We didn't know that there was a theft at the museum in 1951. And, we don't know if anything else was taken."
FBI spokeswoman Jacqueline Maguire confirmed that the agency was investigating the landscape's disappearance from the Baltimore museum but added that it's "impossible to predict" whether ownership would be established in a matter of months or years. For the time being, at least, "Paysage Bords de Seine" will remain at the Alexandria, Va.-based Potomack Co.
After the news of the painting's discovery broke this month, the Washington-area auction house received inquiries from potential buyers in China, Japan and Europe. Several made plans to fly halfway around the world for the auction.
But, though Potomack Co. owner Elizabeth Wainstein was "deeply disappointed" to learn that the painting might have been stolen 61 years ago, she's relieved that the discovery was made before the gavel went down and money changed hands.
"The Potomack Gallery does not deal in stolen art," Wainstein said. "We definitely want the truth to come to light. It's the right thing to do."
She noted that before putting the oil painting up for sale, the auction house staff "did our due diligence" and checked the painting against the London-based Art Loss Register — a service that tracks stolen works. The Register contained no indication that the Renoir had ever been reported missing.
She is even able to find an orange lining to this particular cloud — the hue of the small index card in a Baltimore Museum of Art file cabinet that confirms that it had exhibited a work by Renoir named "Paysage Bords de Seine."
"There can no longer be any question," Wainstein said, "about this painting's authenticity."
She added that it wasn't easy for her to break the news to the Baltimore-born woman who told of buying the painting at the flea market — a woman who, because she wishes to remain anonymous, is known only as "Renoir girl."
"The consignor of course was enormously disappointed and had the air let out of her balloon," Wainstein said. "But she agreed immediately that the painting had to be withdrawn from auction."
Renoir Girl couldn't be contacted immediately for comment. But, on Sept. 10, she told The Sun that even a relatively modest windfall would have come in handy. (The Potomack Co. initially estimated that the diminutive landscape would fetch between $75,000 and $100,000 at auction.)
The flea market patron said that she had just recently begun to regain the financial stability that was sacrificed during two years of joblessness.
"I've got my feet back on the ground now," she said, "But a few years ago, I lost my job. I was down there standing in line for food stamps and to collect unemployment."
But the woman also said that she'd never seriously considered keeping the artwork in the hope that it would appreciate in value.
"I usually don't have this kind of luck," she said. "But, my house is very dusty and old, and the painting deserves to be in a temperature-controlled, lighted environment where people can appreciate it."
Before putting the painting up for auction, The Potomack Co, found a label on the back of the canvas indicating that it had been purchased in 1926 from the Gallerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris, one of the pre-eminent Renoir dealers.
The buyer was Herbert L. May, who at the time was married to Saidie Adler May, a cousin of prominent Baltimore art collectors Claribel and Etta Cone. The Mays divorced in 1927, and the whereabouts of the painting in the ensuring 85 years were a mystery.
Saidie May was an heiress and a prominent donor who gave more than 1,000 works of art to the Baltimore museum. Earlier this week, Washington Post reporter Ian Shapira, who was interested in tracing the painting's journey from moneyed estate to a flea market, went to the Baltimore museum and began sifting through the heiress' papers. He found a note indicating that the painting had been lent to the BMA in 1937.
"We didn't think the painting had even been here because we assumed that anything that Saidie May had owned would have been part of her collection," Bolger said. "And she made a will in 1947 that left her entire collection to us."
The heiress died in May 1951, and six months later, lawyers were in the process of transferring ownership of her artworks to the Baltimore museum.
Bolger checked the museum's loan records and found an orange index card for the painting marked simply, "Stolen on Nov. 17, 1951."
That's when she picked up the phone and called Wainstein, who put through a conference call to the FBI.
The alleged theft seems to have been kept quiet. The Sun archives contain no articles reporting that a Renoir had vanished from the museum. And Bolger was flabbergasted that a theft could have occurred of which her current staff was utterly unaware.
"In 1951, we didn't have the Internet and all these research tools that we do now," she said. "At that time, records were typed and written in pen and ink. Pulling 61-year-old records together is a complicated task."
Bolger had indicated previously that the BMA wasn't planning to bid on the Renoir at auction. But, she said Thursday that if the FBI investigation concludes that the museum is the rightful owner, she would be thrilled if "Paysage Bords de Seine" were to return to Saidie May's hometown.
As Bolger put it: "We'd love to fulfill her wishes and honor her legacy."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun