HARPERS FERRY – A federal court battle over a tiny Renoir a Virginia woman insists she discovered in a $7 box of odds and ends here has erupted into a bitter family feud.
[cleeng_content id="464011709" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]On one side: Lovettsville, Va., resident M.M. “Martha” Fuqua, who says she found the painting in 2009 at the Harpers Ferry Flea Market just off U.S. 340.
On the other is her only sibling – Matt Fuqua, 50, a property manager in Sterling, Va. – who contends the landscape was for decades among the possessions of his recently deceased mother.
Matt Fuqua said the case has turned the once-close pair into enemies, according to The Washington Post.
The first twist in the case came in late September 2012 when a reporter uncovered that the French Impressionist’s unsigned work – painted on a 5 1/2-by-9-inch linen napkin in 1879 – had been on loan to the Baltimore Museum of Art when it was reported stolen in 1951.
Just weeks before, “On the Shore of the Seine” had made headlines worldwide when The Potomack Company in Alexandria, Va., sent out a press release announcing the “lost” Renoir would go to the highest bidder.
Through the auction house, select reporters were granted interviews with the painting’s owner – identified then as “Renoir Girl” and later in court Martha Fuqua – who told them she’d sought the box lot for its Paul Bunyan figurine and folk-art cow and never suspected the painting could be authentic despite a small plaque that reads “Renoir.”
She’d stowed the piece away in a shed and was planning to take it apart for the ornate gold frame when, at her mother’s urging, she decided to get an expert to take a look.
The find came at an ideal time for the 51-year-old. She’d fallen into financial straits after losing her job as a public schoolteacher in D.C. She’d filed for bankruptcy and trained for a new career – as a blackjack dealer at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races – before becoming a driving instructor.
Before putting the painting up for sale, Potomack conducted its customary background review, contacting Bernheim-Jeune, the Paris art gallery that keeps a detailed log of the ownership histories of Renoir’s works, as well as the Art Loss Register, the private worldwide database of stolen and lost art that’s based in London.
The Paris gallery confirmed that the painting was the real thing – the gallery had sold the piece in 1926 to an American buyer, Herbert L. May – and the piece didn’t show up on the Art Loss Register as stolen.
But a connection to the Baltimore Museum of Art struck Washington Post reporter Ian Shapira as noteworthy. May had been married to Baltimore-born Saidie Adler May, who donated several Renoirs and more than 1,000 items total to the museum in her hometown before she died in 1951.
Just days before the Potomack auction, Shapira found documents in the Baltimore museum’s library showing that Saidie May had in fact lent “On the Shore of the Seine” to the museum in the 1930s.
With that news, the museum uncovered other internal records that showed staff had reported the Renoir’s theft to Baltimore police in mid-November 1951.
Potomack quickly called off the auction and gave the painting to the FBI. In court papers, Fuqua has sought to get the painting back, arguing that she is its “innocent owner” as defined by federal law. She says she has only a layperson’s understanding of art and couldn’t have been expected to understand the painting she unwittingly bought was a real Renoir and therefore subject to possible forfeiture to the FBI.
Actually, though, Martha Fuqua is hardly an art-world innocent. Her mother – Marcia M. Fuquet, who died Sept. 9 at 85 after a long battle with cancer – ran the Great Falls Art Studio for decades after moving to the community in the 1960s; Martha Fuqua was said to help out there.
Fuquet (she changed her surname to the original French spelling later in life) also had ties to Baltimore. She graduated from Goucher College with a fine arts degree in 1952 and earned a master’s from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1957. Martha Fuqua has said the family lived in Baltimore until she was 4.
In an October article in The Connection, Martha Fuqua said her mother never was interested in conforming. “She was way ahead of her time. She wasn’t concerned about what others thought. She did things her own way. She had two kids in the ‘60s without being married, she put herself though college – she was always forging ahead.”
And Fuquet’s career-long specialty? Reproducing the works of famous artists, including Renoir.
A federal judge is set to decide ownership of the painting next month. Representatives from the insurance company that reimbursed the museum for the long-ago theft have said the painting should go back to the museum.
Matt Fuqua wants the museum to have the Renoir, too. “I told [my sister] to give the painting back, and that ‘You’re going to get in a lot of trouble,’ ” he told the Post. “She said, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ ”
He says his girlfriend – real estate agent Jamie Lynne Romantic – came across the Renoir in late 2011 as she cleaned out his mother’s Fairfax studio. Romantic says Fuquet told her it was a “priceless” authentic Renoir and that soon after Martha Fuqua took possession of the painting.
Some witnesses told the Post earlier this year that they’d seen “On the Shore of the Seine” on display in Fuquet’s Fairfax home as far back as the 1980s.
Now Matt Fuqua calls his relationship with his sister as “at war.”
Martha Fuqua in October was charged with burglarizing an apartment Romantic rents on Fuquet’s property and stealing her jewelry, antiques and furniture.
Now the trustee of her mother’s estate, Martha Fuqua is seeking to have Matt Fuqua and Romantic evicted from the property.
A two-day jury trial in U.S. District Court in Alexandria is set to begin Jan. 15.[/cleeng_content]