A famous painting for a pittance? Buyer beware

It should be relatively easy for a judge to make a decision in the matter of the small landscape painted on a napkin by French artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir ("U.S. court enters fray over painting," March 16).

Museum collections managers and registrars adhere to the English Common Law concept, recognized in modern American jurisprudence, that deed does not follow theft, even after several changes of hands; the original owner remains the owner.


Since the Baltimore Museum of Art was the original, legal owner of the painting (it having been left to the museum in an unchallenged will), its ownership remains with the BMA to this day, despite its having been lost through theft.

Because the woman who wished to sell the stolen painting at auction was not the true owner, any contract she entered into with the auction house is null and void. Nor have any of the self-identified heirs of any of the other parties in this affair acquired legal standing.


Although it reimbursed the BMA for the loss, the insurance company did not "buy" the painting. It does not deal in art any more than it deals in bananas stolen from a dock; its business is loss reimbursement. Once the art is restored to the BMA, the insurance company is owed only what it paid to reimburse the museum for its loss. The BMA should not be required to "buy" back its own painting at current market prices. Let the lawyers argue whether interest is due or not.

The woman who bought the painting at a Virginia flea market is simply out of luck, but fortunately she paid only a very small price for her purchase.

It does not, and must not, ever pay to buy stolen objects, whether they are known to be stolen or not. That is why it is always important to have confidence in the seller and a clear, written and signed provenance — the history of legal ownership — when purchasing any work of art.

The judge should give the painting back to the BMA, the BMA should reimburse the insurance company, and as a gesture of good will the museum should offer the woman who found it a free membership and a keepsake photo of Renoir's napkin.

Diana C. Schramm

The writer is a former registrar at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Maryland Historical Society and the Peale Museum.