Art inflates, and so does much else

Documents released this week as part of a battle in federal court to determine the ownership of a miniature Renoir landscape also provide intriguing glimpses into the life of Saidie A. May, a prolific art collector whose bequests helped the Baltimore Museum of Art build a world-class collection.

The 1879 painting "Paysage Bords de Seine" was stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1951 and is now the subject of a dispute between the institution and a woman who says she bought it at a flea market decades later for $7.


That painting was one of many family treasures May left to the museum or to friends and relatives before she died in 1951. Several items that went unclaimed were priced for a possible future sale.

An inventory of May's possessions included in the court documents serves as a reminder of how much prices for just about everything have skyrocketed during the past six decades.


Take, for instance the artwork at the center of the debate. "Paysage Bords de Seine," was painted in 1879 on a linen napkin, supposedly for Renoir's mistress. May reported that she bought the painting for $1,010. When it went missing in 1951, it was insured for $2,500 — chump change by today's standards.

Now, even the most conservative estimate of the value of the painting of the Seine river is about $22,000, while other estimates go up to $100,000.

It was one of about 900 artworks left to the museum. The heiress' treasures included at least two other Renoir paintings, a Cezanne and a Delacroix.

Other items show a similar inflation, from the mundane to the luxurious.

An electric clock was then priced at $5 and two leather waste baskets at $3.50.

On the luxury end, a baroque fluted pearl and gold bead necklace was valued at $25, an Alaska seal coat was assigned a value of $50, 13 Spode luncheon plates at $32.50 and a particularly fine, 5-by-8-foot Oriental rug for a princely $150.

One of the prizes in May's estate appears to have been a diamond bar pin kept locked in a vault. Its estimated price tag: $1,000.