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BALTIMORE — From the moment it was created in 1879, a tiny landscape of the River Seine by Pierre-Auguste Renoir has been characterized by a tangled weave of embellishments, layers and knots.

When the Impressionist master sat down to dash off a quick oil sketch of the river, he picked up not the usual piece of canvas, but — museum experts confirmed last week — a linen napkin from his mistress that had an elaborate geometric pattern in which threads twist above, below and around one another.

“Our textile curator, Anita Jones, spent a lot of time looking at the painting under a high-powered microscope,” Katy Rothkopf, the Baltimore Museum of Art’s senior curator of European painting and sculpture, said at the preview of a new exhibit, “The Renoir Returns,” which opens Sunday.

“The fabric is a type of linen damask that in the late 19th century was used for table linens,” Rothkopf said. “It was unusual for painters to use this type of fabric, but it turned out to be a good choice. Linen increases in strength when wet and is smoother than wool or cotton.”

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But as elaborate as the fabric’s geometric structure is, it’s virtually a model of simplicity when compared to the 135-year-old artwork’s past.

The FBI said Thursday that the investigation into the theft of “Paysage Bord du Seine” (“On the Shore of the Seine”) from the museum in 1951 has been closed. After interviewing dozens of witnesses over nearly 18 months, there wasn’t sufficient evidence to arrest anyone either for stealing the artwork or for intentionally possessing stolen property, Special Agent Gregg Horner said.

Crowds expected

The 5½-by-9 inch painting’s story is expected to draw throngs of visitors to the museum this weekend when the Renoir goes on display for the first time in more than six decades, as part of an exhibition drawn from the collection of the painting’s donor, Baltimore heiress and philanthropist Saidie May, who bought the artwork from a Paris gallery in 1925 and later bequeathed it to the museum.

The twice-divorced May was a free spirit, an amateur artist and a cousin of the art collectors Etta and Claribel Cone. (Two paintings by May also are on display in the exhibit, which also includes works by Piet Mondrian, Jackson Pollock and Paul Klee.) It was May who put up the money that enabled the artists Marc Chagall and André Masson to flee from Nazi-occupied France during World War II and to escape to America with their families.

More recently, the Renoir was in the possession of a Virginia driving instructor named Marcia “Martha” Fuqua. She made headlines worldwide in September 2012 when she said she’d bought a Renoir painting at the Harpers Ferry Flea Market as part of a box of odds and ends costing $7 without knowing the artwork’s true value.

Fuqua, 52, announced plans to sell the painting at auction, where it was expected to fetch as much as $100,000. But after a Washington Post reporter discovered the painting’s connection to the Baltimore museum, police uncovered a theft report from 1951. The sale was called off, the FBI seized the artwork and Horner began trying to track down the thief.

Fuqua’s brother, Owen Maddox “Matt” Fuqua, publicly cast doubt on his sister’s account of buying the artwork at a flea market, though he later admitted in a deposition that he had lied when he claimed to have seen the painting in the Great Falls, Va., home of his late mother, who went by the name Marcia Fouquet.

Fouquet was a painter who specialized in reproducing the pieces of famous artists, including Renoir, according to an online biography and people who used to work at her art studio.

Horner said he talked to witnesses who think they saw the painting in Fouquet’s home, and others who believe they glimpsed Fuqua buying it at the flea market. He identified former museum staff members, contractors and exhibitors who had access to the museum when the painting was stolen (including a former friend of Fouquet’s) and, when possible, interviewed them.

“There were so many different stories,” Horner said, “it made it tough to get to the bottom of things.”

The agent’s one meeting with Fouquet also shed no light on the landscape’s history.

“I did not ask her about the Renoir,” Horner said. “I did not feel that the timing was right. She’s a very interesting lady, very well-educated. We had a nice, pleasant conversation. I talked to her in general terms about her art.”

He considered returning to conduct further interviews, but decided against it because of the rapid decline in Fouquet’s health.

“Given her illness,” Horner said, “I didn’t think it was appropriate.”

Fouquet died from cancer Sept. 9.

But though Horner interviewed Matt Fuqua in person, he never talked to Matt’s sister, Martha.

Fascination with theft

Horner understands the public fascination with the unsolved theft. But he devoted most of his efforts to ensuring that the painting was returned to the museum.

“The majority of our investigation had to do with showing the provenance of the painting, authenticating it as a Renoir, and doing the things like an appraisal that you have to do when you go into the forfeiture process,” he said. “I think we’re successful when we can return things to where they rightfully belong.”

Early in the investigation, Horner said, it was not certain the painting would end up back in Baltimore. But as the case unfolded, the museum benefited from several lucky breaks.

It was fortunate, for instance, that May’s great-great niece, Susan Adler, had published a biography of her illustrious ancestor in 2008. That biography contains photographs of May’s New York apartment, with the tiny Renoir hanging on the wall.

It also was lucky that the museum uncovered evidence of the theft just before the painting was scheduled to be auctioned. Had that discovery been made after the artwork had been sold — possibly to a foreign buyer — recovering it would have been exponentially more difficult, Horner said.

And it was a huge help that the Baltimore museum had been unusually meticulous about documenting the theft, and that officials held on to the relevant pieces of paper, from board minutes to receipts to exhibit catalogs, for more than 60 years.

If the museum had less documentation, Horner said, “things might have worked out very differently” when the ownership dispute ended up this year in federal court.

In addition, the museum benefited from corporate generosity. For a while, it appeared that the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company, which had paid a $2,500 settlement on the 1951 theft, had the strongest ownership claim. But the insurance company signed over its rights to the Baltimore Museum of Art.

That’s why the wall plaque accompanying the Renoir states, now and in perpetuity, that the painting is “A Saidie A. May bequest, courtesy of the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company.”

Material from The Associated Press and The Seattles Times archive is included in this report.

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