The woman who found a real Renoir in a $7 box of junk she bought at a flea market doesn't want to give out her name because she doesn't want all the media attention, so few reporters have been telling her story. Unfortunately for her, one of them is quite good at his job. The Washington Post's Ian Shapira wrote on Thursday that he had discovered a document that showed the painting, which was expected to sell for as much as $100,000 at an auction this weekend, had been stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art way back in 1951. But the museum would have never known if not for Shapira unearthing some documents showing it owned the 1879 painting, titled Paysage Bords de Seine, from 1937 to at least 1949. When Shapira asked if they had any further information, "What the museum found astonished its staff: documents showing that the museum had noted the painting’s theft, and that the BMA had been paid $2,500 by its insurance company for the stolen artwork." He elaborated in an email to The Atlantic Wire:
They would never have reached that step had I not found the initial documents proving that the museum did in fact actually have this painting for several years after the original purchase in 1926 in France. Before that, the museum didn't think it had the painting. Before I found the document, no one knew what happened after it was originally purchased in 1926.
The painting had been on loan from its benefactor Saidie A. May and it was stolen in November 1951 shortly after her death while ownership was in the process of being transferred permanently to the museum. May, who was in the habit of hanging out with French artists and according to a biography by Susan Helen Adler, buying their work, apparently bought the painting in Paris in 1926. Doreen Bolger, the museum's director, told The Atlantic Wire there was still no clue as to how the painting was stolen, or who took it. "It's important to remember this was 60 years ago, a different time and place, different records being kept. It's going to take a lot of research on our part… to even uncover the information we have in the museum here," she said.
The painting's lucky new owner has engaged the auction house, Potomack Company, to sell it for her. (Their estimate was $75,000-$100,000.) They had checked the Art Loss Register of stolen works, and even checked with the gallery that sold it to May before they concluded it was legitimate to sell. But after Shapira's work, the auction has been canceled and Potomack president Elizabeth Wainstein said the poor flea market shopper is "disappointed." What an understatement.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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