To bolster her argument, Diaz cites the example of a Tiffany sword dating back to the Civil War that vanished from Brown University sometime between 1974 and 1977. The sword was purchased in 1992 from an Illinois antiques dealer by a couple named Donald and Toni Tharpe.

After Brown discovered the whereabouts of the missing weapon, university officials sued to have the sword returned. The lawsuit was filed in the Eastern District of Virginia — the same district where the Renoir case is pending. Though the Tharpes argued that they had purchased the artifact in good faith, earlier this summer, Magistrate Judge Douglas Miller ruled that the sword belongs to the university and ordered it returned.

In her motion, Diaz argues that the case for the museum's ownership of the Renoir is even stronger than the winning case presented by Brown University.

Unlike the theft of the sword, which was never fully documented, the Renoir painting was reported to have been stolen within hours after the theft was discovered. Diaz's motion includes four separate documents alluding to the theft.

She argues that under "well-settled Virginia law" good-faith purchasers of stolen goods are out of luck.

"Ms. Fuqua could not have purchased good title to the painting and does not, therefore, have a valid claim to possession and ownership of the painting," Diaz's motion argues. "Her claim to possession and ownership of the painting must be dismissed."

Fuqua's attorney, T. Wayne Biggs, declined to comment Tuesday, though he is expected to file a formal response to the motion for summary judgment this month.

A motion for a summary judgment can be granted only if the germane facts in the case aren't in dispute, if they are so clear-cut that a jury could reach just one possible verdict under the law.

That's a steep bar for any attorney to surmount — and Fuqua's attorney has yet to make his client's case.

But, at a pretrial conference last week, Judge Brinkema might have given a hint as to her thinking. She told the attorneys: "This is a relatively straightforward, simple case. It shouldn't take much time."

She will hear oral arguments in the motion on Jan. 10.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com