September 29, 2012

Renoir Stolen from Baltimore Art Museum in 1951 allegedly found in West Virginia at a flea market two years ago; this weekend's sale aborted; legal battle likely to ensue over who gets the painting

Today's scheduled auction sale of a newly discovered Renoir landscape was cancelled this week when a Washington Post reporter discovered that the painting had been stolen in 1951 from the Baltimore Art Museum (BMA).

Earlier this month, Mary Carole McCauley reported for The Baltimore Sun that an anonymous buyer had purchased the 1879 "Paysage Bord du Seine" for $7 at a flea market in West Virginia about two years ago.  The 6-inch by 10-inch canvas with a gold ornate frame had been one of numerous items sold in a box.  McCauley describes the painting:
The landscape is intentionally blurred and indistinct.  Fast-moving swirls of green, purple and pink and a splash of white mimic the motion of the water and the wind.  The viewer glimpses the river through a scrim of shrubbery, while something gray and vertical looms on the far bank.
Photo by Paul J. Richards, AFP/Getty Images 
The Virginia-based buyer reportedly preferred the frame to the painting, had  let it "rattle around the trunk" of her car and stored it in a "shed with a busted window." The flea market buyer even confessed that she had torn "off the brown paper on the back and threw it in the trash".  Her mother found a "tag on the painting that said 'Renoir, 1841-1919' so the purchaser took the painting to Potomack Company, an auction house she had heard of through the PBS television program "Antiques Roadshow", the new owner told McCauley.

The auction house determined the painting had been purchased by Herbert L. May and Saidie Adler May from Gallerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris in 1926.  Saidie Adler May had donated more than 1,000 paintings to the Baltimore Art Museum.  When McCauley wrote this article, the history of the painting was a "mystery".

Then reporter Ian Shapira of The Washington Post got curious, as he tells Melissa Banks here on NPR, and set out to find out what had happened to the painting since it left Paris almost nine decades ago.  First, Shapira tells Banks, the May family knew nothing about this painting so he went to the Baltimore Art Museum's library and discovered that the painting "Paysage Bords de Seine" had been loaned to the museum by Saidie May.  The museum officials then matched the loan number to their records and discovered a report that the painting had been stolen in 1951.  Shapira speculates that although the May family would like the painting to be returned to the museum, the insurance company that paid out [$2,500] for the stolen artwork may have title to it.

Online in The Washington Post the day before the scheduled auction sale, Shapira showed the museum's loan record on the painting:
"Paysage Bord du Seine" (On The Shore of the Seine), an oil on linen napkin, measuring 5 1/2" by 9" with no artist signature had been purchased for $1,000 in Paris and valued at $2,500 in 1951 when it was exhibited at the BMA in the show "From Ingres to Gaugin".  Mrs. May told the museum that 'Renoir painted this landscape for his mistress, at a restaurant on the Seine - thus the linen napkin.'  The museum index card noted that this Renoir landscape was stolen from the Gallery on November 17, 1951 and had been replaced by a Degas "Self Portrait".
Shapira reported:
In a box full of Saidie May's letters and artwork receipts lay one major clue: records showing that she had lent the painting to the museum in 1937.  The discovery startled museum officials, who had already said the flea-market Renoir never entered their institution.
According to Shapira, the FBI and the museum, who are now investigating details of the theft, could not explain why this artwork does not appear on any registry of stolen or lost art.

Here's a link to the follow up story by McCauley for The Baltimore Sun reporting the painting was stolen and her interviews with the BMA director, the FBI investigator, and the auction house that reports that "Renoir Girl" agrees that the stolen painting should be withdrawn from the auction sale but admits that the money would have been welcome after two years of unemployment.

McCauley reports on the details of the short police report on the stolen painting here: no evidence of a break in, nothing else was stolen, and it was taken sometime between 6 p.m. and 1 p.m.