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Purloined masterpiece [Editorial]

ArtistsArtMuseumsAuction ServiceCourts and the JudiciaryFBI

It's been more than a year since the Baltimore Museum of Art discovered that a small painting by 19th-century French artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir that it had it reported stolen more than 60 years ago was being auctioned in Virginia by a woman who claimed to have found it in a box of junk at a flea market. The improbable story related by Martha Fuqua, a 51-year-old driving instructor from Loudoun County, Va., never made much sense, however, and papers filed by her attorney in U.S. District Court in Alexandria last week offered nothing of substance to dispute the BMA's ownership of the work. Given the museum's long, well-documented history of caring for and exhibiting the work, the painting should be returned to its rightful owner without further delay when the case comes up for a hearing on Jan. 10.

Last year Ms. Fuqua brought the painting, an 1879 landscape by Renoir titled "On the Shore of the Seine," to an Alexandria auction house saying she had purchased it three years earlier for $7 at a West Virginia flea market. The picture, she said, was tucked inside a box that also contained such items as a Paul Bunyan doll and a plastic cow. Ms. Fuqua told the auctioneer that it wasn't until later that she begin to suspect the gilt-framed image painted on a small cloth napkin might actually be an authentic work by the French Impressionist master and that she thought it might be worth as much as $100,000.

But within weeks of Ms. Fuqua's contacting the auction house, officials at the BMA realized that the painting had once belonged to its collection before disappearing under suspicious circumstances one November night in 1951. The museum had reported the apparent theft at the time, and its insurance company had covered the work's then-estimated value of $2,500. Museum officials immediately contacted the FBI, which confiscated the painting before it could be sold. Federal investigators are now holding the work pending the court's determination of its legal ownership.

In the months since, Ms. Fuqua has offered varying and often conflicting explanations of how the painting came into her possession, some of which have been contradicted at times by members of her family and others.

Moreover, a tenant who rented a room in the mother's house as late as last year said that on several occasions she spoke of the painting as a treasured family heirloom that could never be sold. He also said she seemed totally unaware of the fact that her daughter was offering it for sale. Ms. Fuqua's mother, a painter and gallery owner, had been an art student in Baltimore the year the painting disappeared.

In a brief filed last week, Ms. Fuqua's attorney argued that the BMA never really owned the painting because the donor who bequeathed it to the museum had never established legal title to the work. The piece apparently was purchased in 1925 by the then-husband of BMA patron Saidie Adler May, who left much of her large collection of artworks, including the Renoir, to the museum on her death in 1951. But Ms. Fuqua argues, absurdly in our view, that because the piece was purchased by her husband it was never really May's to give away.

Yet May's long relationship as a benefactor to the museum clearly shows she intended the work to remain in Baltimore. In any case, Ms. Fuqua's objections do nothing to advance her own tenuous claim to the painting, nor does it overcome the long-standing legal principle that stolen objects remain the property of their rightful owners no matter how many times they change hands. Ms. Fuqua's ever-changing explanations of how she got the painting, while bizarre, may ultimately be irrelevant. We look forward to a speedy return by Renoir's diminutive masterpiece's to Baltimore where it belongs.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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