Baltimore museum's stolen Renoir painting comes full circle

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 April, 2014, 3:57pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 April, 2014, 3:57pm

The tiny Renoir that was supposedly purchased for US$7 at a flea market and captivated art mystery lovers around the world went back on display last month at the Baltimore Museum of Art, more than 62 years after it was stolen from the building.

The 135-year-old On the Shore of the Seine, a 14cm-by-22.9cm oil painting, is part of the museum's exhibition "The Renoir Returns".

The museum is hoping to capitalise on the stolen painting's improbable saga, which generated headlines around the world and even inspired an episode of TV cartoon series The Simpsons.

The Impressionist landscape, which Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted on a linen napkin for his mistress at a cafe along the Seine in 1879, was purchased by longtime BMA donor Saidie May at a Paris gallery and given to the museum in 1937. While it was on exhibit on November 17, 1951, the painting was somehow spirited out of the building and the thief was never found.

Decades passed, and the BMA forgot about the Renoir, and lost track of records showing it had reported the piece stolen, and an insurance claim had been paid.

But in 2012, the Renoir suddenly vaulted into the news when Martha Fuqua - a driving instructor in Virginia, who initially concealed her identity with the alias "Renoir Girl" - said she bought the painting at a West Virginia flea market. The Potomack Company, a Virginia auction house, was scheduled to sell the painting for as much as US$100,000, which attracted buyers from Japan, China and Europe.

Days before the auction, however, a Washington Post reporter discovered documents at the BMA's library showing the museum owned the painting.

The auction house cancelled the sale, the FBI seized the Renoir - and questions about the painting's murky provenance began to mount.

Friends of Fuqua's mother, Marcia Fouquet, told The Post they had seen the Renoir hanging in Fouquet's home during the 1980s and 1990s. Fouquet, a painter, attended art college in Baltimore at the time of the theft.

Fuqua's brother, Matt Fuqua, said that before their mother's death last year, she told her daughter to "return the painting to its rightful owner - the museum - so all of this goes away".

Martha Fuqua, 52, declined to comment. She battled in federal court to hang on to the painting, arguing that she was an "innocent owner" who could not have known the painting was stolen. But in January a judge ordered the painting returned to the museum.

"The Renoir Returns", curated by Katy Rothkopf and running until July, features more than 20 works the late Saidie May donated to the museum. Highlights of the two-gallery show include Piet Mondrian's Composition V (1927), Paul Klee's Traveling Circus (1937), Joan Miró's Portrait No1 (1938), and André Masson's There is No Finished World (1942), demonstrating May's role as an early champion of pivotal 20th-century artists.

There's also an oil sketch by Georges Seurat that May had purchased with On the Shore of the Seine at the same Paris gallery.

Susan Helen Adler, one of May's great-great-nieces and the author of May's biography, says she is grateful the museum is honouring her ancestor and the Renoir with such fanfare. "Recognition of what Saidie May did for this museum is long overdue. It's fantastic," she says.

"It's unfortunate that it had to be this way, that it took a stolen painting and the publicity around that painting to bring [attention to] what May did for the museum."

Rothkopf, the museum's senior curator of European painting and sculpture, says the Renoir needed only a light cleaning when it was returned. "It was an absolute thrill to finally be able to get it here," she says. "It's such a lovely painting, and it really sparkles. It's going to play such a great role here because it fills out our collection of Renoirs."

The Washington Post