Renoir found at flea market returned to museum by Virginia court


Paysage Bords de Seine was painted by French Impressionist at a restaurant near the Seine River

A Renoir painting bought for $7 at a flea market but valued at up to $100,000 must be returned to the museum it was stolen from in 1951, a federal judge ordered on Friday.

The 1879 Impressionist painting Paysage Bords de Seine, dashed off for his mistress by the French artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir at a riverside restaurant in Paris, has been at the centre of a legal tug-of-war between Marcia «Martha» Fuqua, a former physical education teacher from Lovettsville, Virginia, and the Baltimore Museum of Art in Maryland.

Judge Leonie Brinkema, in a district court hearing, dismissed Fuqua’s claim of ownership, noting that a property title cannot be transferred if it resulted from a theft.

«The museum has put forth an extensive amount of documentary evidence that the painting was stolen,» Brinkema said, citing a 1951 police report and museum records.

«All the evidence is on the Baltimore museum’s side. You still have no evidence – no evidence – that this wasn’t stolen,» said Brinkema to Fuqua’s attorney before ruling in favour of the museum.

Fuqua bought the unsigned Paysage Bords de Seine for $7, along with a box of trinkets, at a flea market in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia in 2009 because she liked the frame, she said in a court filing. Although the frame carried the nameplate «Renoir 1841-1919,» Fuqua was unaware the painting, measuring 5½ by 9 inches (14 by 23 cm), was genuine.

Her mother, an art teacher and painter, urged her to get the painting appraised. Fuqua took it to an auction house, which verified it was as an authentic Renoir.

After media reports about the painting, the Baltimore Museum of Art said it had been stolen.

An appraisal carried out for the FBI said the painting was worth about $22,000 (£13,000).

The painting is soiled and «there is a distinct lack of enthusiasm for paintings by Renoir now considered a more old-fashioned taste,» appraiser Ted Cooper said.

It came to the Baltimore museum through one of its leading benefactors, collector Saidie May. Her family bought the painting from the Bernheim-Jeune gallery in Paris in 1926 and it was loaned, along with other works, to the museum in 1937.

May died in May 1951 and the collection was willed to the museum. As its ownership was going through legal transfer, the painting was stolen while still listed as being on loan. (