Stolen Renoir returns to the Baltimore Museum 63 years later
It is hard to decide what is more impressive: the return of a work of art stolen in the fifties, or the idea that it was for sale on a flea market stall. Martha Fuqua, an ex P.E. teacher, says she got it along with some bric-a-brac for $7.00 (£4) in 2009 at West Virginia market. Rumor has it that this is not quite how the story goes. It rather involves an art heist, the FBI, and intrigued reporter, and yes, a beautiful woman.
On November 17, 1951, the “Paysage bord du Seine” was declared missing from the Baltimore Museum of Art. A tiny oil landscape depicting the shore of the Seine, painted by Pierre-Auguste Renoir in 1879. A work that filled an important gap in the museum’s collection that had no landscape from that period among its Renoir works. Until today no one can confirm the thieve(s) identity, apart from the suspicion that the piece was stolen overnight during the “From Ingres to Gauguin” show.
One fine day, in July 2012, a lady named Marcia ‘Martha’ Fuqua shows up at The Potomack Company – an auction house in Alexandria – with intent to sell a rare 14cmX23cm piece. Apparently, she has got it on the Harpers Ferry Flea Market three years before, and luckily enough her mother who was an artist advised her to evaluate the painting. For a connoisseur, this is an astonishing finding. No less than a gift from Renoir to his mistress, made on a linen napkin while they were dining ‘al fresco’, in a time when Impressionists were at their height of outdoor painting, exploring the atmospheric effects on nature.
Intrigued by this story Ian Shapira, a reporter of the Washington Post, decided to investigate. This creation was first purchased by the Bernheim-Jeune gallery in Paris from “Madame Papillon” – apparently one of the figures in the “Luncheon of the Boating Party” – and sold in 1926 to Herbert L. May, a private collector. Eleven years later it was loaned to the Baltimore Museum of Art, becoming the museum’s property in 1951 until the night it was stolen. Shapira found documents proving the painting ownership by the Baltimore Museum of Art which, in its turn, discovered the staff reports of the heist made back in the 50s. With this breakthrough, the auction house was informed and the FBI seized the painting.
Martha Fuqua fought to retain ownership of the landscape, claiming that she bought it unaware of its value or criminal past, but her story was not adding up. Especially after former tenants and her own brother mentioned they remember seeing it hanging in the house for decades. It turns out their mother, Marcia Fouquet, was a painter who went to Art College in Baltimore at the time of the painting’s theft. A beautiful woman – some say – with “a certain charm over men” and plenty of connections in the art world. Curiously enough, she was also an art teacher who specialized in copying classic paintings. She died at 85 years of age and she never told anyone how she got it.
As for who and why this romantic Renoir was stolen is now left to our imagination. The good news is that last month the U.S. District Court Judge ordered the return of the painting, as it was stolen property. It is now back on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art in “The Renoir Returns” exhibition running from March 30 until July 20, 2014. If the museum is a little out of reach, you can view more of Renoir’s works at overstockArt.com’s Renoir Gallery for more scenes off the shore of the Seine.