HARPERS FERRY – As news spread that a Virginia bargain hunter had found an authentic French Impressionist’s landscape valued at $100,000 or more at the flea market here, Roger Droneburg’s attitude remained easy-going, not envious.
And that’s the case even though he might have been the vendor who unknowingly sold the gold-framed painting that turned out to be a lost work by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
The 1879 painting is entitled, “Paysage Bords de Seine” (“Landscape on the Banks of the Seine”).
“I say, ‘Good for her,’ ’’ said Droneburg, one of the market’s regular weekend sellers. “I don’t know that it was me who sold it to that lady, but if it was, I would have no bad feelings toward her. That’s the business. People come to the flea market looking for bargains.”
The Baltimore-born shopper, whose identity hasn’t been made public, has been quoted in other news stories as saying she wouldn’t remember who sold her the painting.
She only recalls that she made the purchase at the Harpers Ferry Flea Market at 2182 Millville Road just off U.S. 340 back in the fall of 2010.
She has said she paid $7 for a box that contained not only the painting, but a leather Paul Bunyan doll, a plastic souvenir cow and various thingamajigs.
Though the painting carries a plaque front-and-center with the word RENOIR and the artist’s birth and death years, she presumed the painting couldn’t be a real Renoir and tucked the box away in her shed.
Only recently, when she set about removing the frame, did she heed her mother’s advice and take the painting to The Potomack Company, an Alexandria, Va., auction house she knew from watching “Antiques Roadshow.” She soon learned her painting is an undisputed Renoir.
It goes up for auction Sept. 29.
Droneburg, a 65-year-old who sustained lasting injuries serving in the Vietnam War in 1966 and ’67, said he remembers selling a leather Paul Bunyan doll like the one described by the painting’s owner.
He also said it’s not unusual for him to sell an item at a bargain price and learn later it was worth much more.
“Just a few weeks ago, I guy that I’d sold a military picture to came back and showed me he’d gotten $500 for it on eBay,” Droneburg said. “He’d paid me $10 and I’d split that with the buddy of mine who asked me to sell it.”
An “auction addict,” Droneburg said he could take the time to research every painting, picture and whatnot that he has for sale at the flea market, but so far he hasn’t felt that pull.
“In all truth, I do have the time, but what I like to do is come here and sit in the shade and talk all weekend,” he said.
He points to Hubert Brown, who is sitting beneath a nearby tree, not far from his own tables spread with glassware, cooking implements, tools, dolls and other goods. The Harpers Ferry resident and his wife, Janet – Droneburg’s sister – set up sale most weekends.
“You don’t get ulcers working here,” Brown jokes from his perch in the shade.
Droneburg agrees. If a flea market shopper makes a purchase that becomes a windfall, he isn’t irritated in the least. His attitude is, “Such is life,” or, as the French say, “C’est la vie.”
“My feeling is, if I’m at a public auction and at the end of the night I buy a table full of stuff for $1, and then I turn around and sell one thing for $5 and another for $3 and another for $1 or whatever, then I’m making money on the deal. I’m happy.”
Adds Janet Brown: “Ask anybody with a table here. We’ve all passed along things that turned out to be valuable. It’s very easy to not know what you have.”
At the flea market, which is open dawn to dusk on weekends from mid-March to Nov. 30, vendors pay $15 per day for a space with a 3×5-foot table.
Shoppers come to haggle over trinkets, bikes, clothes, albums, historical photos, framed works of art (most of them non-Renoirs), commemorative tins, DVD movies, collector-edition Barbie dolls and even supermarket surplus goods such as toothpaste, shampoo, granola bars and breakfast cereal.
Shelly Conaway, a Baltimore native who now lives in Thurmont, Md., makes the drive to Harpers Ferry most weekends to sell napkin holders, kitchen items and the like.
The flea market is busiest at “check time,” on the weekends after retirees and others get their government living allowances, said Conaway, who has been in the flea market business for two decades.
“It’s still the same as when I started,” she said. “Something I have marked for $6 and people’ll say, ‘Can I give you $4 for this?’ Everybody wants something for nothing. I got to make a living, too.”
Upon learning about the Renoir find, some visitors and sellers at the Harpers Ferry flea market expressed dismay and wondered if the painting had been thoroughly authenticated.
Elizabeth Haynie Wainstein, The Potomack Company’s founder and president, said there’s no question the painting is a Renoir. In an interview, she explained that because the painting wasn’t signed, but only featured a plaque with the artist’s name, the owner likely presumed the plaque had been added on later. Such forgeries pop up regularly.
But her fine arts experts were quickly able to trace this painting back to Bernheim-Jeune, a French art gallery that is on record as having purchased “Paysage Bords de Seine” in June of 1925.
The Potomack Company compared a black-and-white photograph of the painting published by the Bernheim-Jeune and found it exactly matched the painting found at the flea market. The painting’s stock number also is the same one listed in Bernheim-Jeune’s registry.
The official record states that the French gallery paid 5,000 francs for the small painting, buying it from a woman known officially only as Madame Papillon, but likely one Alphonsine Fournaise Papillon, who sat for Renoir and whose image is included in his famous work, “Luncheon of the Boating Party.”
Wainstein said that it’s also known that in January of 1926, Bernheim-Jeune sold the painting to Herbert L. May, a lawyer whose family owned a department store in Pittsburgh. He was married to Saidie Adler May, the daughter of a wealthy Baltimore shoe manufacturer and an artist and art collector who died in 1951.
Saidie May acquired Matisses, Picassos and at least one Jackson Pollock. She donated more than 1,000 items to the Baltimore Museum of Art.
“That the Mays had ties to Baltimore and the painting was found in Harpers Ferry – it’s the same region,” said Wainstein. It isn’t known just how the painting came to be up for grabs at a flea market, she said, but it may have been passed along to one of the May’s relatives or to a caregiver.
“I think about my great-grandparents – I wouldn’t be able to say what became of every belonging they had,” she said.
It’s also possible, Wainstein said, that the French painting never made it into the Mays’ hands in the United States, that it became separated from his belongings on its transit from the gallery in France.
It’s also unclear just how much the painting will sell for. “Given the painting’s size and quality, we have the right estimate, $75,000 to $100,000,” Wainstein said. “But it’s hard to gauge whether a buyer might be willing to spend much more given that it’s been off the market for almost 100 years, that it belonged to the Mays, that it likely was a painting Renoir made for one of the models he used in one of his best-known paintings.
“Those are all likely to be factors, and we can’t say what that will mean at auction.”
There are additional French twists to the Renoir’s tale. The painting’s owner, who said she is of French descent, may use money from the sale of the Renoir to take her mother on a vacation to France.
And the very name “flea market” is said to come from the French term, “marché aux puces,” used to describe the outdoor bazaars in Paris where unsuspecting shoppers sometimes took home pesky parasites, hidden unseen in the upholstery of old furniture for sale there.