WASHINGTON — The saga of an Impressionist painting stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art decades ago and allegedly purchased for $7 at a West Virginia flea market came to an end Friday in federal court in Alexandria, Va. when a judge rendered her verdict: Renoir Girl is losing her Renoir.
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema awarded the painting to the BMA at the expense of the woman who dubbed herself “Renoir Girl,” ending a bizarre art drama that generated coverage from the Los Angeles Times to “Good Morning America.” The decision wiped out a potential six-figure windfall for Loudoun County, Va. driving instructor Martha Fuqua, who claimed that in 2009 she found “On the Shore of the Seine” in a box containing a plastic cow and a Paul Bunyan doll.
“Darn,” said Fuqua, 51, when she was contacted by phone after the ruling. Asked if she was disappointed, she said, “Of course,” before hanging up. She didn't attend Friday's hearing, which was filled with stolen-art rubberneckers and reporters.
Her tale initially burst into the headlines in September 2012, when Fuqua, then identified only as Renoir Girl, tried auctioning off the 5 1/2-by-9-inch landscape, which she hoped would sell for as much as $100,000. In the run-up to the auction, two things were known about the painting: The piece had been bought at a Paris art gallery in 1926 by Herbert May, the husband of Saidie May, a prominent BMA donor. And the painting somehow had gone missing since May's purchase. Initially, the BMA said it had no record of the painting ever being in its possession.
But days before the sale at the Potomack Company in Alexandria, a Washington Post reporter found evidence in the BMA's own records that the May family had donated the painting to the museum in 1937. Armed with those records, BMA officials made an unexpected discovery: a loan registration document showing that the painting was reported stolen from a November 1951 exhibition. Baltimore police unearthed a copy of the original police report.
The FBI took possession of the Renoir from the auction house, stored it in a climate-controlled room in its Northern Virginia field office in Manassas and asked the federal court to determine who should own it.
Since then, a number of people who know Fuqua have cast doubt on her flea market story, including her brother. Some family acquaintances told The Washington Post that they remember seeing the Renoir in the 1980s and 1990s at the Fairfax County, Va. home of her mother, Marcia Fouquet, who attended art college in Baltimore at the time of the painting's theft in 1951. (The mother passed away five months ago at the age of 85.)
During Friday's court hearing, the BMA argued that regardless of whether Fuqua found the Renoir at a flea market, no one can have legal title to stolen artwork.
Brinkema agreed in her ruling, granting summary judgment in favor of the BMA. She said the museum had overwhelming evidence that the painting had been stolen in November 1951 and that Fuqua offered not a “scintilla” of proof to the contrary.
Brinkema's decision cancels a trial that had been scheduled for next week and wipes out what could have been a useful windfall for Fuqua, who in 2009 filed for bankruptcy, citing debts of more than $400,000.
Fuqua's attorney, T. Wayne Biggs, argued in court that the BMA's evidence — the police report and other decades-old museum records — needed proper authentication to be admissable. But Brinkema said that the BMA furnished a mountain of evidence that “clearly reflected” that the item had been pilfered.
Biggs declined to comment after the hearing.
Doreen Bolger, the BMA's director, said she was “delighted” by the judge's decision. She likened the painting's return to a “prodigal son who's been lost for 60 years” and is finally coming home. “I'm just glad to have it over and to have the decision be so clear-cut.”
Marla Diaz, the BMA's attorney, said that Fuqua can appeal the judge's decision but doubted whether she would.
Matt Fuqua, Martha's brother, who attended the hearing, was elated by the judge's ruling and stood outside the courthouse before a bank of television cameras, giving interviews.
Before she died, his mother had urged Martha to return to the painting to the BMA, he said. “My mother wanted this.”
He said he suspects that the painting was given to his mother long ago as a gift, but she never revealed where it came from. The FBI declined to comment on its investigation into the circumstances surrounding the painting's theft and alleged appearance at a flea market.
Bolger said the BMA plans to exhibit “On the Shore of the Seine” as soon as March, as part of an exhibition of works bequeathed by Saidie May. The museum is debating whether to make available for visitors printouts of news stories about the Renoir case so they can view the piece and read its back story at the same time.
Asked if the museum would be taking special care to ensure that the piece would not be stolen again, Bolger said that no one need worry. That painting, Bolger stressed, will not escape the BMA's hands.
“It'll be anchored to the wall,” she said.