Mystery over stolen Renoir gets stranger
HARPERS FERRY – Word that a Virginia woman had found an authentic painting by French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir in a $7 box of odds and ends at a flea market here made international news in September.
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But now, months after an FBI probe launched when it was determined the painting actually had been stolen from a Baltimore art museum more than 60 years ago, the mystery is deepening.
Recently filed court documents and Washington Post interviews hint that the flea market “find of the century” might have never happened at all.
In September when the Post first wrote about the Renoir discovery, the flea market shopper was identified only as a Virginia woman unwilling to disclose her identity and risk being overwhelmed by the public spotlight.
She told the Post reporter she’d purchased the napkin-sized painting in a box sometime in 2009 and, despite a plaque bearing Renoir’s name on the artwork’s gold frame, hadn’t regarded it as the real deal. She said she’d purchased the box for its folk-art Paul Bunyan doll and a plastic cow and had set the painting aside, all but forgetting it until she decided to salvage its lovely frame in 2012.
Then her mother, she told the reporter, urged her to act with caution, to first take the painting to an art house just to be sure it wasn’t a genuine Renoir. When she did, experts at the The Potomack Co. in Alexandria, Va., authenticated it and set up an auction where it was predicted to sell for $75,000 or more.
But on Sept. 28, the day before the auction, Potomack officials postponed the sale. Their rationale: A Post reporter had discovered documents in the Baltimore Museum of Art’s library showing “Paysage Bords de Seine” had been in the museum’s collection starting in 1937.
Officials from the auction house said they’d checked on ownership issues months earlier. On July 27, the same day their 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 make sure 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 Sept. 28 news release sent by the company.
But after the federal government filed an action last month in U.S. District Court in Alexandria asking a judge to determine ownership of the painting, the already complex tale grew more complicated. To whit:
** The Virginia shopper has been named in court as Baltimore-born Marcia “Martha” Fuqua. Fuqua told the FBI under penalty of perjury that she bought the painting at a flea market. She describes herself as an “innocent buyer’’ and questions the FBI’s authority to seize the painting.
“Because I am not an art historian, collector, appraiser or dealer, I lacked the expertise to identify the Renoir Painting’s authenticity, origins or previous ownership history,” she wrote.
Late last week, the Post reported that Fuqua’s 84-year-old mother, who operated an art school for decades in Fairfax County under the name Marcia Fouquet, is an artist who specialized in reproducing paintings from Renoir and other masters.
The Post said Fouquet had artistic links to Baltimore in the 1950s, graduating from the city’s Goucher College with a fine arts degree in 1952.
** The appraiser says the Renoir’s value is about $22,000, much less than the auction house estimated, because Renoir’s paintings have fallen out of favor with some art collectors who consider them old fashioned and because questions about the painting’s ownership and possible theft diminish its value to collectors.
** Also last week, a man who identified himself as Fuqua’s brother, Owen M. Fuqua, told the Post that the painting had been in the family for 50 or 60 years and that “all I know is my sister didn’t just go buy it at a flea market.”
The man later retracted his story, and ultimately said it was another person using his name who gave the initial interview.
Efforts to reach Martha and Owen Fuqua Friday were unsuccessful. Martha Fuqua’s lawyer did not return a call seeking comment.
The FBI has an ongoing investigation, according to spokeswoman Lindsay Godwin.
Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema ordered all parties seeking to claim ownership of the painting to make their case in written pleadings later this month.
— Matthew Barakat writes for The Associated Press; send feedback on this story to Ford at