A court hearing Friday could determine the future of a small Renoir painting that was reported stolen 62 years ago from the Baltimore Museum of Art — while the artwork's clouded past is becoming even more of a mystery.
U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema will hear arguments in her Alexandria, Va., courtroom to resolve an ownership dispute involving the 1879 pink and green landscape known as "Paysage Bords de Seine. The museum and a 51-year-old woman who once called herself "Renoir Girl" are seeking title to the oil painting on a linen napkin.
The 51/2-by-9-inch artwork surfaced in September 2012, when Marcia "Martha" Fuqua put it up for auction. Her account of buying the landscape around 2009 in a box of odds and ends costing $7 — without knowing its value — made headlines and attracted interest worldwide. The day before the landscape was to go under the gavel, the museum announced that the painting had been stolen in 1951. The auction was called off; the FBI seized the Renoir.
Martha Fuqua's brother, Owen Maddox "Matt" Fuqua has publicly cast doubt on his sister's account of buying the artwork at the Harpers Ferry Flea Market. But in a deposition obtained by The Baltimore Sun, Matt Fuqua acknowledged that he'd lied when he said that he had seen the painting in his late mother's home in Great Falls, Va., and that it had been there for "50 or 60 years."
The museum isn't assuming that Brinkema will award the institution title. But BMA Director Doreen Bolger wrote in an email that she's eager "to welcome home the Renoir painting that was stolen from its gallery walls more than 60 years ago. This would be a wonderful way to celebrate the BMA's 100th anniversary and the legacy of donor Saidie May."
At least one knowledgeable observer predicts that the painting will be heading back to Baltimore.
"It would shock me if sufficient evidence didn't get into the trial that the painting was stolen," said Nicholas O'Donnell, a Boston-based attorney and former museum researcher who wrote a legal analysis of the case on the Art Law Report blog (artlawreport.com).
"If there's any way to get that evidence in, the museum will win. The museum's attorney points out very well that even a good-faith purchaser can't get title to stolen goods."
The motion to be argued Friday in Brinkema's courtroom is the museum's request for a summary judgment. In essence, the museum is asking Brinkema to declare that there is no legal basis for awarding the Renoir to Fuqua.
Fuqua's attorney, T. Wayne Biggs, disagrees. He asserts that the documents that the museum has submitted to bolster its case either were not properly authenticated, are inadmissible under the rules of hearsay, or do not prove what the museum thinks they prove.
Those documents include heiress Saidie May's will (she bequeathed her entire art collection to the museum), a police report and a loan receipt kept by the museum. There are documents indicating that the painting was exhibited at least twice, minutes of the museum's board of directors regarding the theft and a $2,500 insurance settlement.
O'Donnell, who worked for the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts from 1997 to 2000, said the outcome of the summary judgment motion will turn on the hearsay rule, which he writes, has "bedeviled generations of law students and lawyers."
As he explained it, hearsay boils down to this: A statement about the truth of the facts in dispute — in this case, about whether the painting was stolen from the museum — cannot be considered unless it is made by a live person on the witness stand.
"If the person making the statement isn't in the courtroom, they can't be judged as to their demeanor, so any statements they make are considered to be unreliable," O'Donnell said. "The jury can't read their body language, can't see whether they're fidgeting or sweating."
Given the pitfalls of hearsay, O'Donnell is curious why neither Biggs nor the museum's attorney, Marla Diaz, interviewed two of the three people who had direct knowledge of the theft in 1951: the museum employee who reported that the Renoir had been stolen and one of the two responding officers. (The other officer died several years ago.)
Both Diaz and Biggs declined to comment on their trial strategies.
In interviews with The Sun, the BMA's former assistant director, James N. Foster Jr., and retired Northern District police officer Lawrence Barry said they did not recall the theft investigation.
"As you suggest, 61 years is quite a stretch," Foster wrote shortly after the auction was canceled. "At 92, I dearly wish my memory were far better. ... I recall that the great Cone Collection had a smallish Renoir, but odd as it may seem, I do not remember the circumstances of its disappearance."
If Brinkema denies the museum's request for a summary judgment, the case will go to trial Jan. 15.
The ownership dispute will be resolved one way or another, and very likely in the next 10 days. But the artwork's location for at least the past half-century might never be cleared up.
Matt Fuqua's statements that the painting had been stored in the home belonging to his mother, the artist Marcia Fouquet, were reported first in The Washington Post and have been picked up by media outlets from Korea to New Zealand. His version of events raises the possibility that Martha Fuqua was trying to sell a valuable artwork she knew to be stolen.
But in the deposition, Fuqua, 50, of Sterling, Va., acknowledged that a statement he made to an FBI investigator was "an exaggeration" and that a similar account he gave to a reporter "was not a true statement."
The deposition Nov. 14 is the only time Matt Fuqua has spoken about the case under oath.
In it, Fuqua testified that he has never set eyes on the painting with the gold "Renoir" tag, even though he has been in and out of his mother's home almost daily for 30 years. He said he's never spoken to anyone who claims to have seen the painting in his mother's home before his sister said she purchased it at the flea market. He admitted that he was convicted of grand larceny as a teenager.
Matt Fuqua testified that he "was furious" after he received a phone call last spring informing him that his sister planned to auction off an original Renoir worth up to $100,000, adding, "and that is when I got a little erratic, a little upset." (The painting later was appraised at $22,000.)
Complicating matters, the witness list for the trial includes Fuqua family friends and former tenants who have said that they saw the painting in Fouquet's home in the 1980s and '90s. But other witnesses are prepared to testify that they think they saw the painting at the flea market in Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
Last year, the flea market's owners told a Sun reporter that unnamed customers glimpsed the painting at a stand run by a Vietnam war veteran who specializes in military paraphernalia. A Virginia couple noticed a woman resembling Martha Fuqua pick up the landscape and admire its ornate frame.
Biggs wrote in an email that Martha Fuqua has been "upset by the slant of the coverage."
He added: "What you have is a string of opportunistic persons who want to see their names in print, who have some kind of ax to grind, or who have some other ulterior motive to involve themselves in this story. Unfortunately, they are being accepted by some media outlets as reliable sources."
The FBI has been investigating for 15 months but has made no arrests.
Robert K. Wittman, a former senior investigator for the FBI who founded its National Art Crime Team, hopes the Renoir will return to Baltimore, but said Friday's hearing could go either way.
"Any time you go to court, it's a carnival," he said. "Anything can happen."