Flea-market Renoir still tied up with FBI

HARPERS FERRY – More than two months after an auction house cancelled plans to sell the Renoir landscape found amid trinkets at a flea market here, the artwork remains in the hands of the FBI.

The Potomack Co. of Alexandria, Va., had scheduled to auction the miniature painting by the French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir on Sept. 29 – until auction house officials learned the FBI suspected the painting had been swiped from the Baltimore Museum of Art more than a half-century ago.

A Virginia woman bought this painting “Paysage Bords de Seine” for $7 at a Harpers Ferry flea market in 2010. A planned September auction of the painting was cancelled after it was learned that it may have been stolen.

Experts had predicted the painting would sell for $100,000 or more.

Lucie Holland, a spokeswoman for the auction house, said this week that “Paysage Bords de Seine” is still in the possession of FBI agents, who are continuing their investigation into how the painting ended up in a box of odds and ends at the Harpers Ferry Flea Market.

A Virginia woman whose identity still has not been made public bought the painting along with a plastic cow and a folk-art Paul Bunyan figure in a box for $7 in 2010. Though the painting bore a “Renoir” plaque, the buyer said she figured it was only a knockoff and stashed away the painting for months in her kitchen. Her plan was to make use of the work’s beautiful gold frame.

“I was more interested in the frame than the landscape and started taking it apart,” the unidentified flea market shopper told Potomack, according to a news release from the company. “I tore the brown paper off the back and threw it in the trash. When I asked my mom for help, she told me to get it looked at first before I threw it away. Lo and behold, she was right! It does pay to listen to your mother.”

Potomack officials quickly concluded the numbered painting had been purchased in 1926 from the Gallerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris, one of the pre-eminent dealers of Renoir’s work, by international lawyer Herbert L. May.

May was married to Saidie Adler May, a Baltimore arts patron and collector. Saidie May, who died in 1951, would become a key benefactor of the Baltimore Museum of Art, donating more than 300 works to the museum along with money to establish the museum’s Renaissance and Modern Art wings.

This fall, news of Potomack’s planned sale made headlines worldwide, but the auction abruptly was scrapped after a Washington Post reporter combing through records in the Baltimore Museum of Art’s library discovered documents showing the painting had disappeared in mid-November 1951. Museum officials later produced a police report on the incident.

Officials from the auction house said they did check on ownership issues before scheduling the sale.

On July 27, the same day Potomack’s expert confirmed the painting was a Renoir, they contacted the Art Loss Register – a service that records and follows missing and stolen works of art – to confirm 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.

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