A one-of-a-kind flea market find of a Renoir painting by a Virginia woman may turn into a courtroom battle after it was discovered the painting may have been stolen from an art museum decades ago.
The painting, a river Seine scene titled "Paysage Bords de Seine," was scheduled to be auctioned on Saturday but that has been put on hold after a reporter for The Washington Post uncovered documents from the Baltimore Museum of Art showing that the painting was stolen from the museum in 1951.
Instead of calling the auction, where the painting was expected to command at least $75,000, officials from the Alexandria, Va.-based Potomack Company auction house and the museum called the FBI, which has opened an investigation into the theft.
"Potomack is relieved this came to light in a timely manner as we do not want to sell any item without clear title," Elizabeth Wainstein, the auction house's, said in a statement, according to the Associated Press.
The discovery by the Post reporter could go a long way in explaining how an Impressionist painting by the famous French painter ended up at a flea market in West Virginia where the woman, who has not revealed her name, bought it in a bucket of art items for $60 total.
"What had actually caught her eye in the box wasn't the valuable Renoir but a plastic cow and a Paul Bunyan doll. She stored the rest of the box's contents first in a white plastic bag in a shed, later in her car's trunk and eventually in her kitchen," Anne Norton Craner, the Potomack Company fine arts specialist, said in a statement earlier this month, when the auction was announced.
The woman told the auction house that she was "more interested in the frame than the landscape, and started taking it apart."
She had apparently thrown the painting's wrapping paper into the trash, but her mother advised her to examine the painting first before discarding it. She noticed that a plaque that said "Renoir" was affixed to the painting, so she took the canvas to the Potomack Company to have it checked, according to the statement.
When Craner removed the painting from the plastic bag in which it was stored, she said she was struck by the rapid brush strokes and vibrant purple and pink colors, all of which reminded her of another Renoir work, "Landscape of Wargemont." Further investigation confirmed the woman's painting was "Paysage Bords de Seine."
When the woman's find was announced, media coverage said the records showed the painting was last purchased by an international lawyer in Paris in 1926.
The newly discovered documents in the museum's library indicated that the painting belonged to Saidie May, a well-known art collector and major benefactor to the BMA. The artwork was reported stolen on Nov. 17, 1951, according to the documents, shortly after May's death in May of that year.
The painting does not appear on a worldwide registry of stolen art, however, and the painting had not yet been formally accepted into the museum's collection before it was taken, which is why museum officials did not recognize the loss.
"We were caught by surprise," BMA director Doreen Bolger said Thursday, according to the Associated Press.
Renoir was a leading painter of the Impressionist period. Over his career he created thousands of paintings, a few of which have fetched tens of millions of dollars at auction in recent years.
He died in 1919 at the age of 78.