The 1879 Pierre-Auguste Renoir painting entitled “Paysage Bords de Seine” that was discovered at a Virgina flea market, but which may also have been stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art more than sixty years ago, is now the subject of a federal court case in Alexandria, Virginia. The United States has seized the painting and filed an action, known as "interpleader," to sort out the proper ownership of the work.
As discussed in September, 2012, the painting became a sensation when a Virginia woman purchased a small painting in a golden frame with “RENOIR” engraved onto its frame. Assuming it was a copy, she paid $7 and brought it to the Potomack Company. An auction was scheduled, with estimates ranging as high as six figures. Shortly thereafter, a Washington Post reporter examined the library at the Baltimore Museum of Art and found a provenance card that seemed to be for the very same painting, originally part of a gift from Sadie A. May. The card notes that the painting, on a linen napkin, was painted for Renoir’s mistress, apparently at a restaurant on the Seine. More importantly, the card concludes with the entry “STOLEN FROM THE GALLERY, Nov. 17, 1951.”
The Baltimore Museum and its director, Doreen Bulger, immediately stated its interest in receiving the painting back. The FBI seized the painting on October 2, 2012 pursuant to a civil seizure warrant, and it is presently in the FBI field office in Manassas, Virginia. To impose some order on the confusion, the United States has now filed what is called an “interpleader” action. Under Rule 22 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and 28 U.S.C. § 1335, interpleader is simply another word for a dispute in which a holder of property (most often a bank), faces claims from multiple parties for ownership. Rather than make a decision and face legal action from the disappointed parties, the holder files an interpleader action in which the claimants make their arguments and the court ultimately decides.
Here, the United States has identified six potential claimants, including for the first time the identity of the woman laying claim to the painting as a good faith purchaser at the flea market. Her name is Marcia “Martha” Fuqua, and she is a resident of Lovettsville Virginia. Her detailed letter requesting the return of the painting is an exhibit to the Complaint. The other claims are summarized in the Complaint as follows:
- The Baltimore Museum of Art;
- Fireman’s Fund Insurance, which apparently paid a claim on the loss to the Museum in 1952;
- Amalie Adler Ascher, great niece of Sadie May, as Sadie's heir to any paintings that the Baltimore Museum chose not to accept;
- Heirs of Herbert L. May (ex-husband of Sadie), who actually purchased the Renoir from a Paris dealer in 1925; and
- The Potomack Company, the gallery from which the painting was seized.
Interestingly, whereas initial reports (and the scheduled sale) valued the work at more than $100,000, the Complaint sets the value at approximately $22,000, relying on an attached appraisal of Ted Cooper, Director of Adams Davidson Galleries. The dispute will bear close watching.