The question of who owns a tiny Renoir landscape of the River Seine may rest on a four-page handwritten letter penned 78 years ago by a middle-aged woman in a bad mood.
The letter, by the Baltimore art collector Saidie A. May, is reprinted verbatim as part of a 154-page motion for summary judgment filed late Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Eastern Virginia by attorney Marla Diaz on behalf of the Baltimore Museum of Art.
In effect, the motion asks federal Judge Leonie M. Brinkema to determine that the 1879 oil painting "Paysage Bords de Seine" belongs to the Baltimore museum and not to the 51-year-old Virginia woman who says she bought it at a flea market in 2009 for $7 as part of a box of odds and ends.
The letter by the then-56-year-old May is dated Oct. 14, 1935. It's key to the case because it indicates that the heiress owns the tiny painting (framed, it is about the size of a piece of notebook paper) and planned to lend it to her hometown museum. May later bequeathed her art collection — including the Renoir painting — to the Baltimore museum, according to the motion.
May's missive, replete with underlinings and multiple exclamation points, was written to Roland McKinney, who at the time was the museum's director. The heiress — one of the art institution's major benefactors — seems primarily interested in scolding McKinney about the sorry condition of a religious painting in the museum's possession. ("It was never in such a bad shape and I'm sick about it," she writes.)
It isn't until the very bottom of the third page that May gets to the matter that has attracted interest throughout the art world for the past 15 months:
"The Modern Art Museum will be sending you very soon some small paintings of mine which I am willing to loan the Museum indefinitely if you insure them!!"
The second painting she lists as "Au Bord de la Seine" by Renoir next to this price: $1,010.
The peacefulness of the Seine scene, depicted on a linen napkin, belies its tumultuous recent history.
The artwork by the French Impressionist master surfaced publicly in September 2012 when Marcia Fuqua, 51, of Lovettsville, Va., who is also known as Martha, said that she bought the artwork from the Harpers Ferry Flea Market in 2009 without being aware that it was an original Renoir.
She said it was her mother, who went by the names Marcia Mae Fuqua and Marcia Fouquet and who had a fine-art background, who urged her to have the painting appraised. Fouqet died Sept. 9 of this year.
The painting was authenticated by The Potomack Company, a Virginia auction house, which estimated the artwork's value at between $75,000 and $100,000. An auction was scheduled for two weeks later, and the inquiries began pouring in from potential buyers internationally.
But the day before the painting was to be sold, the Baltimore Museum of Art produced documents indicating that the work had been stolen from what was then known as the Polk Gallery after the museum closed at 6 p.m. Nov. 16, 1951, and before 1 p.m. the following day.
The auction was called off. The FBI seized the painting and has been holding it in secure storage in Manassas, Va., until Judge Brinkema can resolve the ownership question.
For a time, it appeared that the painting's rightful owner might have been the Fireman's Fund Insurance Co., which paid the BMA's $2,500 theft claim. However, last month, the insurance company transferred its rights to the artwork to the museum.
Diaz's motion doesn't dispute Fuqua's account of how she came to acquire the oil painting. Or, if any doubt is expressed, it is delicately worded.
"Notwithstanding the 'Renoir' plate on the frame of the painting and the paper on the back indicating that it was by Renoir and entitled 'Paysage Bords de Seine,' Fuqua did not realize that the painting was an original Renoir at the time of her purchase or in the following years," the motion reads.
"Even if she did purchase the painting at a flea market without knowledge of its authorship and/or title, her claim must still fail as a matter of law because the painting was stolen from the BMA."
In Diaz's motion, she provides documents indicating that the Renoir landscape was exhibited at the Baltimore museum at least twice: in March 1950 as part of an exhibit of the May Collection, and again in November 1951, when it was included in a show titled "From Ingres to Gauguin."
It was during that show that the painting disappeared.
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.