The case of a small painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art decades ago took an unexpected turn recently when new questions were raised about a woman's claim that she bought it at a flea market.
The holes in her story should cement the BMA's legal efforts to reclaim its property after all these years, but the strange tale also throws a fascinating light on the pitfalls that inevitably arise in any dealings with artworks of mysterious provenance.
The painting, a diminutive 1879 landscape titled "On the Shore of the Seine," first resurfaced in September, when Marcia Fuqua, a 51-year-old a driving instructor from Northern Virginia, brought it to Potomack Co. auction house in Alexandria, claiming she found it in a box of junk she purchased for $7 at a flea market in 2009.
At the time, Ms. Fuqua told Potomack, she had no idea the picture might be valuable — she was more interested in a Paul Bunyan doll and a plastic cow that were also in the box, she said — but subsequently she had begun to suspect the image painted on a cloth napkin mounted in a gilded frame might actually be an authentic work by the French Impressionist master.
Within weeks of the auction house's initial report, officials at the BMA realized that the painting Ms. Fuqua claimed to have discovered had once belonged to the museum's collection and had disappeared — under suspicious circumstances — sometime during night of Nov. 16-17 in 1951. The museum notified the FBI, which promptly confiscated the painting and is currently holding it until its legal owner is established.
That's where things stood until this month, when The Washington Post reported that months before Ms. Fuqua brought the painting to Potomack, she had visited another auctioneer, Quinn's Auction Galleries in Falls Church, Va., and had given a completely different account of how she got the painting. Reportedly, Ms. Fuqua not only told Quinn's she acquired the painting from an "estate" but that she was also positive it was a Renoir. Tellingly, Quinn's officials didn't recall her mentioning any doubts about the work's authenticity — and certainly nothing about a $7 box of flea market junk — but they were struck by her conviction that it could easily fetch $1 million at auction.
The differences between Ms. Fuqua's two accounts of how she came to possess the purloined Renoir are substantial and will likely add to the wrinkles raised by the case. Ultimately, however, the BMA's claim to the artwork is strong under the proposition that stolen objects remain the property of their legal owners no matter how many times they change hands. That principle is one of they key safeguards against art theft because it makes it virtually impossible for a thief to profit from his ill-gotten gains. Beyond that, there is a moral argument that it was clearly the intention of Baltimore collector Sadie Adler May, who gave the painting to the BMA, that the work remain in Baltimore.
It's unclear whether Ms. Fuqua knew the painting she was trying to sell was stolen property; she may have been a perfectly "innocent buyer" who simply stumbled on a treasure, and there's certainly no suggestion that she was in any way involved in the theft of the artwork, which occurred before she was born. Be that as it may, however, her experience points to the perils of trying to profit from valuable artworks of uncertain provenance. One wonders why anyone would even attempt it, given the risks involved.
Perhaps the more interesting question is posed by the fact that the BMA received an insurance settlement after the painting was stolen 60 years ago. Fireman's Fund Insurance Company paid the museum $2,500 back in 1951. Does that give it some claim to the painting, which is now worth considerably more, if not anywhere near the $1 million that Ms. Fuqua apparently envisioned? Fortunately, that point may be moot; a Fireman's attorney told The Post that it would give the painting back to the BMA if it comes into possession of it.
The fate of the painting is now in the hands of a federal judge in Alexandria. We hope it will be returned to the museum as soon as possible.