The 63-year-old saga of a small Pierre-Auguste Renoir landscape painting reported stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1951 may come to a close Friday by summary judgment in Alexandria’s U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. But if not, a trial is currently scheduled for Wednesday.
According to court records and museum officials, the 5-by-9-inch impressionist landscape titled “Paysage Bords de Seine” was painted by Renoir on a linen napkin for his lover. The title translates as “Landscape on the Banks of the Seine” and was reportedly painted by the artist as he sat at a waterside restaurant along the banks of the Seine River in Paris, France, in 1879.
Court records state that in 1926, the painting was purchased in Paris by Baltimore resident Herbert L. May. The painting was later loaned on a long-term basis to the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1937 by May’s ex-wife, Saidie A. May.
“We had been in possession of it since 1937, and it was on display when it was stolen on Nov. 17, 1951,” said Baltimore Museum of Art spokeswoman Anne Mannix Brown. “Baltimore City Police had just begun keeping police report records on microfiche two months earlier, in August 1951.”
According to Brown, May had died a short time before the painting went missing, complicating matters.
Court records show that May bequeathed all her “art objects and residual assets” to the museum in her will, but “the painting was stolen during a period when [May’s] estate was still in probate,” Brown said. “Generally the museum will only list itself as the owner of willed pieces after they have been probated, which is why there was not originally a record of the painting before we discovered the police report.”
But Brown said that after some digging, uncovered records showed that the Renoir had been insured, and the museum did receive a payout of $2,500. “It turns out that we purchased a Degas self-portrait with the insurance money,” she said.
Sixty-two years later — in September, 2012 — the missing Renoir surfaced in a listing for an art auction that was to be held by the Potomack Company in Alexandria.
The owner was determined to be Martha Fuqua of Loudoun County.
The FBI seized the stolen Renoir, which is currently valued at $22,000, and began an investigation.
They discovered that Martha Fuqua’s mother, Marcia Fouquet of Great Falls, was an artist and had been an art student in Baltimore during the time that the painting was reported stolen. Marcia Fouquet died in September from cancer at the age of 85, court records state.
In court testimony, Martha Fuqua claims she purchased the painting for $7 at a Harper’s Ferry, W. Va., flea market in 2009, originally interested only in the frame and initially unaware that the painting was a Renoir. She claims to have kept the painting in her home until mid-2012 when she decided to sell it after discovering it was a Renoir. In court records, she claims to be an “innocent owner,” a legal term meaning that she is innocent of any crime, and therefore her property in question should not be forfeited.
But in a Nov. 14, 2013, deposition, her brother Matt, also of Great Falls, contradicted his sister’s story that the painting had been in her Loudoun home from 2009 to 2012. The allegation came after his sister was charged in October with breaking into his girlfriend’s Great Falls apartment and stealing jewelry, antiques and furniture.
Matt Fuqua claims his girlfriend uncovered the painting in their mother’s home in 2011 and that his sister took possession of it then, fully aware of its provenance and potential value.
Court records also state that Matt Fuqua and his girlfriend both live on Marcia Fouquet’s former Great Falls property, now owned by Martha Fuqua, and that Martha Fuqua filed two lawsuits in November for unpaid back rent and to have them both evicted. Attempts to contact Martha and Matt Fuqua were unsuccessful. Calls made to Martha Fuqua’s attorneys were also not immediately returned.
Meanwhile, the Baltimore Museum of Art has filed for a partial summary judgment in Alexandria’s U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, claiming rightful ownership of the Renoir.
If Federal Judge Leonie M. Brinkema does not rule in the museum’s favor, a trial is currently scheduled for Wednesday.
“We are looking forward to having this interesting case resolved,” said Brown.