Perhaps the only question more puzzling than who walked away with a Renoir landscape from the Baltimore Museum of Art on a fall weekend in 1951 is who rightfully owns the tiny treasure now.
The FBI is investigating the theft of the 1879 "Paysage Bordes de Seine," which Renoir painted on linen, but it's unclear whether the bureau will be able to shed much light on a 61-year-old theft that was barely investigated when the crime was fresh.
For art lovers, the more important question is who owns the painting now, because that will determine where the work, which has been valued at between $75,000 and $100,000, ultimately will end up.
Answering that question — or even figuring out how to arrive at an answer — is a daunting challenge in its own right.
"They will have to look at the original documentation: the bill of sale, wills, the divorce settlement from 1927 and their insurance policy," said Julian Radcliffe, chairman of the London-based Art Loss Register, which maintains the world's largest database of stolen artworks.
"Only a small minority of cases end up in the courts because that's a very inefficient way of resolving disputes."
The legal owner of the hazy depiction of the river Seine, painted in blues, pinks and greens, could be the Baltimore Museum of Art, where the painting was being exhibited at the time it was stolen. It could be the anonymous woman known only as "Renoir Girl" who says she found it in a $7 box of odds and ends at a West Virginia flea market in 2010. Or it could be the insurance company that wrote a $2,500 check to the museum to settle a loss claim. Or it could be the estate of Herbert May, who purchased the painting from a prominent Renoir dealer in Paris in 1926.
The only interested party that can't mount a credible case for ownership is the Washington, D.C.-area auction house where the Renoir is being stored. That uncertainty creates a conundrum for Elizabeth Wainstein, owner of The Potomack Co., which first authenticated the flea market find and which had planned to sell the piece at auction this past Saturday.
"We're strictly the caretaker," Wainstein said. "I can't give the painting back to anyone right now, because we don't know who the legal owner is. Right now, we're sitting back and letting the FBI investigation take its course."
That's a sentiment echoed by the Baltimore Museum of Art. The problem is that the bureau is likely to become involved only in ownership disputes that result in federal crimes. Even if investigators were to identify the thief, it might not shed much light on who the painting belongs to today.
"It's a fascinating case, and it's hard to say at this point what issues are or are not involved in the theft," said FBI spokeswoman Jacqueline Maguire. "But unless it [ownership] turned out to be relevant to the crime, we would not pursue it."
The theft was reported to the Baltimore Police Department on Nov. 17, 1951, by James Foster Jr., then the museum's assistant director.
Foster, 92, remembers neither the theft nor the painting itself. But he suspects that the tiny Renoir was exhibited in an area of the museum that was particularly vulnerable to thieves.
He wrote in an email: "I do not remember [the painting], alas, but feel that it was shown with other small European works from Mrs. [Saidie Adler] May's collection in a small gallery on the left side of the main hall, back toward the Antioch Court. That enclosed space, by its very nature, could not be well observed by the guards, who circulated through the main galleries."
The theft occurred just three months after the Baltimore Police Department established a central division for keeping records. One of the two uniformed officers who typed up the 90-word report has died, while the other has no recollection of the theft, one of thousands he investigated.
But since there were no signs of forced entry and no suspects, the 1951 criminal investigation might have gone no further than an announcement made at roll call for officers to be on the lookout for the missing artwork.
Given the coldness of that 61-year-old trail, Radcliffe concluded, "It's unlikely that the thief will ever be identified or prosecuted."
But Maguire said it would be a mistake to count out the FBI at this early stage of the investigation.
"It's premature to make any judgment calls," she said. "We're the premier law enforcement investigative agency in the world."
The Renoir was purchased by Herbert L. May in 1926 during a trip to France. He and his then-wife, the Baltimore heiress Saidie Adler May, divorced the following year. But even though Herbert bought the painting, it somehow ended up in her possession.