Federal Court Judge Rules That “$7.00” Renoir May Return to Baltimore Museum of Art
The curious tale of the “miracle” $7.00 Renoir is at an end—at least for now.
On January 10, 2014, , ending a year-long ownership dispute, U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Virginia judge Leonie M. Brinkema granted a summary judgment motion in favor of the Baltimore Museum of Art (the “Museum” or the “BMA”), ruling that a small landscape painted by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) allegedly purchased at a flea market, should be released into the Museum’s custody.
Since October 2012, a custody battle over the work has been waged between the Baltimore Museum of Art and Martha Fuqua, a Virginia resident, who claimed that she unwittingly purchased the painting for $7.00 at the Harpers Ferry Flea Market in 2009. According to Fuqua , she was only interested in the golden frame the painting and failing to realize that she was getting a Renoir. She had planned to put the painting up for auction in late September 2012, but the Potomack Company—the small Virginia auction house where she planned to sell the work—had pulled the listing when the Museum claimed that these painting had been stolen 62 years earlier.
At the heart of the legal controversy, is the 5.5’ x 9’ painting, Paysage Bords de Seine, allegedly painted by Renoir in 1879 on a linen napkin at a Parisian restaurant for his mistress. It was purchased by Herbert L. May from Berheim-Jeune, a Paris gallery, in 1926. May’s ex-wife, Saidie May, lent the artwork to the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1937, she ultimately bequeathed her art collection to the Museum. Paysage Bords de Seine was stolen in November 1951, shortly after Saidie May’s death. Following the theft, the Museum accepted $2,500 from its insurance company for the painting. The years between the theft of the painting and its resurfacing remain a mystery. For more details about the circumstances of rediscovering the painting in 2012, read our post, The Tale of a $7.00 Renoir Demonstrates the Surprises and Difficulties of Determining Good Title in the Art World.
While the ownership dispute over the painting—estimated to be worth between $75,000-$100,000— was ongoing, the FBI seized and held it in a warehouse in Manassas, Virginia.
In court documents, the BMA argued, “Fuqua, even if a bona fide purchaser, cannot obtain good title to the painting because it was stolen.” As evidence to support their contention that the piece was stolen in 1951, the museum had offered a 60-year-old police report, old museum catalogues, and a receipt demonstrating that Saidie had bequeathed this painting, together with other artworks, to the Museum.
In response, Fuqua had contended that the BMA’s motion for summary judgment “is supported by inadmissible hearsay, improperly authenticated documents, and conclusory, hearsay-filled supporting affidavits, the Motion must be denied and the parties should proceed to trial on the merits.” However, the court accepted the business records and police reports offered by the museum as admissible. In her opinion, Judge Brinkema stated that the evidence that the painting had been stolen between 6 p.m. on November 16 and 1 p.m. on November 17, 1951 was “overwhelming.”
Legal ruling aside, Fuqua’s story that she was an unwitting and lucky purchaser appears increasingly dubious, as more information comes to light. Fuqua had claimed in her court filings, as well as in a letter to the FBI, that she was an “innocent owner”—a legal term indicating that she has “merely a lay-person’s understanding of art” and that she did not understand that the painting was a Renoir and subject to possible forfeiture. However, subsequent investigation cast doubt on these assertions. Apparently, Fuqua’s mother, Marcia Fouquet, was an artist and an art educator in the Baltimore area at the time of the theft. Other acquaintances had stated that they had seen the painting in the family home. Also as reported in The Washington Post, Fuqua had also amassed over $400,000 in debt at the time she intended to sell the painting. Incidentally, she withheld her real name from the auction house when attempting to sell the painting, registering herself only as “Renoir Girl.”
Further, in a damning November 14 deposition, Fuqua’s own brother contests her story, stating:
“[Our mother has] had it for a long time, probably 50 or 60 years… My girlfriend and her friends were cleaning out my mom’s studio, and my sister stepped in and said, ‘Wow, I want this.’ All I know is my sister didn’t just go buy it at a flea market. …My sister kind of snagged it out of my mom’s art studio.” He claimed this episode occurred in 2011.
The BMA is understandably elated over the outcome. “The Baltimore Museum of Art is pleased that the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Virginia has awarded ownership of the stolen Renoir painting,” said spokeswoman Anne Mannix Brown. “Pending an appeal, we look forward to celebrating the painting’s homecoming with a special installation in the galleries in late March.”
Doreen Bolger, the BMA’s current director stated: “Saidie May intended [this Renoir painting] to be part of the collection, and that it was stolen while on loan from her was very bad for us, we are thrilled now to have the opportunity to have the painting back and to have it in our care and have it here in Baltimore. It is like the prodigal son returning—it’s overwhelming.”
Fuqua has 30 days to decide whether to appeal the ruling.