A tiny water view painted by Pierre-Auguste Renoir is finally headed back to the city where a judge has ruled that it belongs — 62 years, one month and 24 days after it was reported stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art.
During a hearing Friday, Judge Leonie M. Brinkema of the U.S. District Court in Eastern Virginia granted the museum's request to throw out Marcia "Martha" Fuqua's ownership claim for the 1879 artwork, "Paysage Bords de Seine," which has been valued at between $22,000 and $100,000. The judge said that there was "not one scintilla of evidence" that would persuade a jury to hand over the painting to the 51-year-old Virginia woman.
Brinkema canceled a trial that had been scheduled to begin Wednesday. She indicated that she and the government's representative, Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen Taylor, would arrange soon to have the painting returned from the FBI warehouse in Manassas, Va., where it's being stored.
Museum director Doreen Bolger, who celebrated her 65th birthday Friday, said she was thrilled by the outcome. She said she was "incredibly grateful" to the museum's former insurer, Fireman's Fund, which at one point appeared to have the strongest legal claim to the little oil painting with its swirls of pink, green and blue. Though the company had paid a $2,500 insurance settlement for the theft in 1951, Fireman's Fund recently assigned its rights in the artwork to the BMA.
The museum's attorney, Marla Diaz, said after the hearing that she was "delighted that the painting is going back to the museum where the public can see it."
When the tiny landscape in the ornate gold frame surfaced publicly in September 2012, it made headlines worldwide. Fuqua said she bought the artwork in a box of odds and ends costing $7 at the Harpers Ferry Flea Market around 2009 but didn't realize she had an authentic Renoir.
The day before the auction, the museum announced that the landscape, which Renoir is rumored to have painted on a linen napkin for his mistress, had been stolen more than six decades previously. The FBI seized the painting, and the auction was called off.
Fuqua, who once called herself "Renoir Girl," didn't attend the court proceedings and couldn't be reached by phone for comment. She has 30 days to decide whether to appeal Brinkema's ruling.
Friday's court proceeding — technically a hearing on the museum's motion for a partial summary judgment — was long on arcane legal arguments but absent the human drama that the onlookers who crowded the sixth-floor courtroom had hoped to observe.
Instead, the attorneys had barely stated their names for the record before Brinkema indicated which way she was leaning. This was perhaps not unexpected from a judge whose calendar of active cases is known among courthouse insiders as the "Rocket Docket" because of the speed with which legal matters are resolved.
"You are not contesting the solid common-law concept that title to stolen goods can't be passed by a thief to even a good-faith purchaser," Brinkema told Fuqua's attorney, T. Wayne Biggs. "And yet there is overwhelming evidence that this painting was stolen."
The evidence that Brinkema cited included several documents proving that the painting was pilfered between 6 p.m. Nov. 16, 1951, and 1 p.m. Nov. 17, 1951. It was on view as part of the exhibit "From Ingres to Gauguin."
Diaz produced a loan receipt for the painting from 1937, the 1947 will in which the Baltimore heiress Saidie A. May bequeathed her entire art collection to the BMA, the 1951 police report of the theft, two exhibition catalogs and the insurance settlement.
Biggs had argued that the ownership dispute should be decided at trial and not on a motion for summary judgment. He contended that the documents bolstering the museum's case were not properly authenticated, are inadmissible under the rules of hearsay or do not prove what the museum thinks they prove.
Brinkema rejected these arguments. She said that Biggs had the opportunity to produce expert testimony challenging the authenticity of the documents, perhaps a handwriting expert or someone who could analyze the age of the paper and card stock on which the various letters, cards and reports were printed.
Because this was a civil, not a criminal case, Brinkema said, the burden of proof required to rule in the museum's favor was a simple preponderance of the evidence.
"All I have is evidence from the museum," she said. "You have not presented any evidence that the painting was not stolen."
Biggs did not indicate before leaving the courthouse whether his client would appeal Brinkema's ruling.
Though Martha Fuqua stayed away from the hearing, her brother did show up, albeit after the proceedings were over. Owen Maddox "Matt" Fuqua, 50, of Sterling, Va., has cast doubt on his sister's account of buying the artwork at a flea market, though he has admitted in a sworn deposition that at least some of his public statements were lies. When he was told that the painting was going back to Baltimore, he fist-bumped his startled fellow passengers in a courthouse elevator, thrust his arm in the air and yelled, "Yeah!"
Even before Brinkema had ruled, the BMA had begun planning a possible homecoming celebration.
Museum spokeswoman Anne Mannix Brown wrote in an email that the painting's first stop will be the museum's conservation lab "to make sure it is in good condition and ready for visitors since it has been away from the BMA's protection for so many years."
Once the Renoir is deemed fit to be shown, Bolger said, it will be showcased in a special installation in the galleries that will open in late March.
Bolger said because the Renoir has attracted so much publicity, she expects it to be a "gateway" into the museum and attract first-time visitors.
"There are so many stories and so much mystery around this little painting," Bolger said. "People find it quite intriguing. And maybe once they see it, they will want to investigate the other paintings in our collection and their unique stories."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun