How did a landscape by turn-of-the-century French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir end up sold for $7 at a West Virginia flea market? An alleged museum heist decades ago, for starters.
The piece, a colorful depiction of a sunny day along the banks of the Seine River, garnered national attention after Alexandria-based Potomack Co. confirmed it as an original Renoir and slated it for auction last weekend. Experts believed the artwork to sell for between $75,000 and $100,000.
But a bit of sleuthing by Washington Post reporter Ian Shapira forced company officials to shelve the piece — never previously reported as stolen — just days before the auction.
Working on a follow up story to the intriguing tale of the landscape’s discovery, Shapira decided to trace the painting’s past and hopefully track down the chain of events that led to its sale to an anonymous Virginia woman in 2010. He expected to file – at most – a colorful story of the painting’s last known owner, Herbert May, and his descendants.
May bought the painting in 1926, and until Shapira got on the case, many believed it vanished after he died, perhaps passed down to an unimpressed grandchild, friend or employee.
Then, going through the Baltimore Museum of Art’s library on September 25, Shapira found a decades-old inventory of Renoir’s artwork housed at the institute, including “Paysage Bords de Seine.” He alerted museum staffers, who in turn checked their archives and discovered the painting was reported stolen in November 1951.
“We embarked on the story fully expecting not to find anything but a colorful tale of different characters and family descendants,” Shapira said. “I wanted to basically … take readers through a little journey. That was sort of the idea; I did not expect to end up finding that the painting had been at the museum for at least more than a decade.”
While Potomack Co. officials point to May as the last known owner, his wife – collector Saidie May – lent the piece to the BMA in 1937, according to the records Shapira and museum staff dug up. It allegedly vanished shortly after her death, said Anne Mannix, BMA communications director.
“Saidie May left her entire collection to the [BMA] and we assumed if there was anything it would have been part of our permanent collection,” Mannix said. “We checked those records and didn’t see any mentions of it. After Ian from the Post discovered the painting had been loaned to us, we checked loan records and found the card noted the painting had been stolen … six months after she died. Her estate was still being settled. So it never made it to the permanent collection.”
Museum staff contacted Potomack Co. and the FBI launched an investigation soon after. Associated Press reporters also uncovered a police report detailing the theft late last week, she said.
But just who owns the painting remains a mystery. The museum received an insurance claim for the stolen piece, but the policy’s specifics have yet to turn up, though BMA employees are searching for the document.
“[Current ownership] is unclear and that’s part of what’s happening with the investigation,” Mannix said.
As for the Potomack Co., employee Lucie Holland is just happy details of the painting’s disappearance broke before the auction. The news came as a surprise, she said.
“There is a mixture of regret and relief that we found out about this issue before the painting was sold,” she said. “We would not want to sell anything without a title.”