Court gives stolen 'US$7' Renoir back to Baltimore Museum of Art

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 January, 2014, 6:05am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 January, 2014, 6:05am


A US judge awarded ownership of a disputed Renoir painting to a Baltimore museum, citing "overwhelming evidence" that the painting had been stolen from the museum more than 60 years ago.

The judge rejected the claims of a Virginia woman, Marcia "Martha" Fuqua, who maintained that she bought the painting at a flea market for US$7, even as others, including her own brother, disputed her story.

In making her ruling on Friday, US District Judge Leonie Brinkema did not rule on the truthfulness of Fuqua's story. The judge said that because the Baltimore Museum of Art had shown the painting was stolen, it did not matter how Fuqua acquired it - she could not legally gain possession of stolen property even if she acted in good faith.

Fuqua did not attend the hearing. Her lawyer, Wayne Biggs, declined to comment on whether she would appeal.

The napkin-sized painting made news in 2012 when an auction company announced plans to sell it on behalf of an anonymous woman dubbed "Renoir girl" who said she bought the painting at a West Virginia flea market in 2009 for US$7. The woman said she did not know the painting was a Renoir when she bought it, even though its frame had a "RENOIR" panel attached.

The auction company had expected to fetch at least US$75,000, but the auction was cancelled when the museum came forward with long-forgotten records showing the painting had been stolen in 1951.

It turned out Fuqua's mother, who used the name Marcia Fouquet, was an artist who specialised in reproducing paintings from Renoir and other masters, and who had links to Baltimore's art community in the 1950s.

In addition, Fuqua's brother, Owen "Matt" Fuqua, told a Washington Post reporter that he had seen the painting in the family home numerous times, well before his sister supposedly bought it in 2009, though Matt Fuqua changed his story several times subsequently.

The FBI seized the painting in October 2012 and has been keeping it while the courts sorted through the ownership claims.

After Friday's hearing, Matt Fuqua said he was glad the museum is getting the painting and called his sister a liar.

Matt Fuqua said he asked his mother many times about the painting's origins, but she would not say.

"It was secretive, and I wasn't very good at keeping secrets," Matt Fuqua said.

Martha Fuqua maintained throughout that she bought the painting at a flea market and gave a sworn statement under penalty of perjury as part of the case. Her lawyer tried to argue that the museum's claims were inadmissible because the documents were so old that nobody could attest to their accuracy.