By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun
10:10 PM EDT, September 28, 2012
It was the art theft investigation that went nowhere.
When a landscape painted by Pierre-Auguste Renoir was stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art on Nov. 17, 1951, there were no newspaper headlines. The report filed by the Baltimore Police Department was a model of brevity, just 90 words long, including the notation of the artwork's value: $2,500.
It's unlikely that the theft was reported to the FBI.
And current museum director Doreen Bolger and her staff were dumbfounded when they learned in recent days that a theft had occurred there in 1951.
"Everybody at the museum was flabbergasted to find out that a theft took place 61 years ago that nobody knew anything about until 2012," said Anne Mannix, the museum's director of public relations.
"We really want to find out what happened, but there are more questions than answers right now."
It's fair to say that in the past six decades, museum practices have changed.
When the Potomack Company, a Washington-area auction house, announced this month that it planned to auction off Renoir's "Paysage Bords de Seine" from 1879, the news drew worldwide interest. The back story — the painting had been purchased for $7 in a box of odds and ends at a West Virginia flea market — was irresistible.
And the mystery of what had happened to the diminutive landscape since it was bought in 1926 by Herbert L. May, then the husband of Baltimore heiress Sadie Adler May, only added to the intrigue. Potential buyers from Japan, China and Europe made plans to fly halfway around the world so they could bid on the artwork at the auction, which had been scheduled for Saturday.
The sale was canceled and the FBI launched an inquiry after Bolger found an index card noting that the painting had gone AWOL from the museum in 1951.
It's unclear who might end up owning the landscape. Possible claimants include the BMA, where the painting was located until it was stolen; the insurance company that paid out on the loss; and the Virginia woman known only as "Renoir Girl" who until this week believed she had picked up the bargain of her life.
Bolger said this week: "These things are never cut and dried."
On Friday, the Baltimore Police Department released a brief report that contained scant clues. The original report, signed by Northern District Officers Francis Fink and Lawrence Barry, stated only that the painting had disappeared between 6 p.m. Nov. 16, 1951, and 1 p.m. Nov. 17, 1951.
Fink died a few years ago, and Barry could not be reached Friday for comment.
But their report notes that there were no signs of forced entry, causing at least one expert to speculate that the thief was familiar with museum security.
"The thief wasn't necessarily an employee, though he could have been. It could have been an art expert or a visitor," said Robert K. Wittman, a former senior investigator for the FBI who founded its National Art Crime Team. Still, "Ninety percent of thefts from museums even today are inside jobs."
Even at the museum itself, the heist seems to have been treated as dismaying but not catastrophic. The crime was called in not by museum director Adelyn Breeskin, but by James Foster Jr. Mannix said Foster edited the museum's monthly magazine and gave public talks about the artworks in May's collection.
Even in its gilt frame, "Paysage Bords de Seine" was just slightly larger than a piece of letterhead. In 1951, it would have been a comparatively easy matter to slip the painting into a briefcase and walk outside unobserved.
Indeed, a Renaissance manuscript that was part of May's collection also disappeared in 1946, under similarly confounding circumstances.
"Security in 1951 was nothing like it was today," said Wittman, who now runs a Pennsylvania-based art recovery firm. "There probably wasn't anything more than a guard at a front door."
He pointed out that in 1984, 34 Old Masters prints disappeared from the BMA, though all were located within a month.
And as recently as 1988, a security guard stole 145 pieces of Asian art from the Walters Art Museum. All were recovered within a week of the theft's discovery — but not before the thief had melted down several ancient gold objects.
Now, there are art-related research tools and databases that would have been inconceivable in 1951.
"Given the thoroughness of our current record-keeping," Mannix said, "it's highly unlikely that anything like this could happen today."
Anne Craner Norton of the Potomack Company, who authenticated the Renoir landscape, said she did "everything we could possibly do to make sure this painting wasn't stolen before we put it up for auction."
She checked the London-based Art Loss Register, which maintains the world's largest database of stolen and lost artworks, along with the FBI's art theft website.
After she found that the BMA had sold a more significant work by Renoir — a nude — at Christie's auction house on May 16, 1990, for $444,691, she scoured auction catalogs to determine that "Paysage Bords de Seine" had never been put up for sale.
"I don't think that very many people even knew that the painting was missing," Norton said. "That's what's so puzzling to us all."
Wittman confirmed that Norton and the Potomack Company appear to have done their due diligence. And if the criminal investigation from 1951 sank without a trace, it's because at the time, the theft of even a painting by Renoir was considered a relatively minor crime.
That's especially true, he said, because the tiny Renoir appears to have been the only artwork taken in the theft.
Had there been other statues or canvases that disappeared, "they would have been listed on the same police report," Wittman said.
"Probably the report was taken by uniformed police officers. Chances are that it wouldn't have been reported to the Baltimore Police Department's detective bureau because there was no aggravated assault or forced entry. And there were also no leads."
Nor would the theft have been recorded on any of the three major art databases in the world because they weren't created for nearly three decades after the theft. Wittman said that in 1951, art theft wasn't even a federal crime unless it involved the transportation across state lines of goods valued at a minimum of $5,000 — or more than twice the price of the missing Renoir at the time.
"The police could have looked at this crime like it was light shoplifting or something," Wittman said. "It's only been in the past 30 years that the value of art escalated and some pieces began to sell for prices in the hundreds of millions of dollars."
Indeed, the Baltimore museum used the $2,500 collected from the loss of the painting — roughly eight months' wages for the average U.S. family in 1951 — to purchase a modest little bauble: a self-portrait by Edgar Degas.
Baltimore Sun reporter Tim Wheeler contributed to this article.
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