HARPERS FERRY – Plans to auction off a landscape by French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir – a $100,000 piece purchased in a box for $7 at a flea market here – were scrapped after auction house officials learned the painting may have been stolen from a museum in 1951.
Officials from the Alexandria-Va.-based Potomack Co. postponed the auction set for Sept. 29 after learning about a startling discovery by Washington Post reporter Ian Shapira. In looking through microfilm of the Baltimore Museum of Art’s library, he uncovered documents showing Renoir’s “Paysage Bords de Seine” had been in the museum’s collection starting in 1937.
Officials from the auction house say they checked on ownership issues months ago – as soon as the painting was known to be a work of the French master.
On July 27, the same day the Potomack Co.’s expert confirmed the painting was a Renoir, officials contacted the Art Loss Register – a service that records and follows missing and stolen works of art – and made sure that the painting had never been reported stolen or missing, according to the auction house.
“Potomack also consulted the FBI’s art theft website to confirm that it was not listed as stolen by the FBI,” according to a news release sent by the company three days before the planned auction.
But it wasn’t until the reporter raised questions that the Baltimore Museum of Art reviewed its records and said that yes, the painting had in fact been swiped.
When officials from the museum called with the news, Potomack Co. owner Elizabeth Wainstein immediately notified the FBI, which has begun an investigation.
“At this time, many questions remain about the fate of the painting after it was loaned to the museum in 1937 and the ownership of the painting then and now,” a news release from Potomack states. “Given these questions, Potomack and the consignor have decided to withdraw the painting from the [Saturday] sale until any questions about its ownership are resolved.”
In the release, Wainstein adds: “Potomack is relieved this came to light in a timely manner as we do not want to sell any item without clear title. Our objective in conducting a sale is always to ensure fairness and finality both for the consignor and for the buying public. Postponing the sale of the Renoir painting is the best way of achieving that objective in this case.”
The auction house was to sell the painting for a Virginia woman whose identity hasn’t been made public. She has said she bought the painting in 2010 at the Harpers Ferry Flea Market. The box also contained a plastic cow and a Paul Bunyan figure.
The find generated international headlines and Potomack officials had predicted the painting would sell for as much as $100,000.
The painting was known to have been sold by a Paris museum to Herbert May, whose Baltimore-born wife, Saidie, was an artist, art lover and eventually a major benefactor to the Charm City museum.