ALEXANDRIA, Va. — The story began with one of those improbable tales of an artistic masterpiece uncovered at a flea market. It concluded Friday, as a judge awarded ownership of the painting, a little-known work by famed Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir, to a Baltimore museum.
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema cited “overwhelming evidence” that the painting had been stolen from the museum more than 60 years ago. She rejected the claims of a Virginia woman, Marcia “Martha” Fuqua, who maintained she bought the painting at a flea market for $7, even as others, including her brother, disputed her story.
The judge accepted the museum’s request for summary judgment and canceled a trial that had been scheduled to begin next week.
Brinkema did not pass judgment on the truthfulness of Fuqua’s story. The judge said that because the museum had shown the painting was stolen, it didn’t matter how Fuqua acquired it; she could not legally gain possession of stolen property even if she acted in good faith.
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Fuqua did not attend the hearing. Her lawyer, Wayne Biggs, declined to comment on whether he would appeal.
The painting, “Paysage Bords de Seine,” or “On the Shore of the Seine,” was painted in 1879 on a linen napkin. The lore is that Renoir was at lunch by the Seine in Paris with his mistress when he grabbed the napkin and painted her a keepsake.
Baltimore art lover Saidie May bought the painting in Paris in 1926, and it was on loan to the museum when it disappeared.
The painting made news in 2012, when an auction company announced plans to sell it on behalf of an anonymous woman dubbed “Renoir girl” who said she bought the painting at a West Virginia flea market in 2009 for $7. The woman said she did not know the painting was a Renoir when she bought it, even though it was held in a frame with a “RENOIR” panel attached.
The auction company had expected to fetch at least $75,000, but the auction was canceled when the Baltimore Museum of Art came forward with long-forgotten records showing the painting had been stolen in 1951.
As it turned out, Fuqua’s mother, who used the name Marcia Fouquet, was an artist who specialized in reproducing paintings from Renoir and other masters, and who had extensive links to Baltimore’s art community in the 1950s.
In addition, Fuqua’s brother, Owen “Matt” Fuqua, told a Washington Post reporter that he had seen the painting in the family home numerous times, well before his sister supposedly bought it in 2009, though Matt Fuqua changed his story several times subsequently.
The FBI seized the painting in October 2012 while the courts sorted through the ownership claims.
Matt Fuqua said he asked his mother, who died recently, many times about the painting’s origins, but she wouldn’t say.
Martha Fuqua, of Lovettsville, Va., maintained throughout the case that she bought the painting at a flea market and gave a sworn statement as part of the court case. Her lawyer tried to argue the museum’s claims were inadmissible because the documents were so old that nobody could attest to their accuracy.
But Brinkema said the museum’s documentation was legitimate. “All of the evidence is on the Baltimore museum’s side. None of the evidence is on your side,” Brinkema told Biggs.
Anne Mannix-Brown, spokeswoman for the museum, said it hopes to have a special unveiling of the painting by the end of March.
An appraiser estimated its value at $22,000, much lower than the auction house believed, in part because the appraiser said Renoir’s paintings have fallen out of favor with some art collectors.