WASHINGTON — She called herself “Renoir Girl,” refusing to reveal her identity and offering few details about her biography. She lived in Northern Virginia, once taught in Washington, D.C., area schools and was well-known in her community.
What made her irresistible to reporters wasn’t who she was, but what she said she’d found: A bona fide painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir in a $7 box of trinkets purchased at a West Virginia flea market.
The story generated global attention and, for a time, promised to produce a six-figure windfall at auction for its accidental owner. But last year, the FBI seized the painting, “On the Shore of the Seine,” after the Baltimore Museum of Art learned it had been stolen in 1951.
Now, to retain ownership of the painting, “Renoir Girl” has been forced to unmask herself in court papers, as a federal judge in Alexandria, Va., determines who should get the painting.
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Her name: Marcia “Martha” Fuqua. A former phys-ed teacher, she runs a driving school out of her Northern Virginia home in rural Loudoun County’s Lovettsville. She is no stranger to legal drama — or to the art world.
“I am a very private person,” she told The Washington Post in September, when she was still pseudonymous. “I am one of those people that believes that things happen for a reason,” including stumbling on a long-missing Renoir. “It’s all very coincidental.”
Shortly after “On the Shore of the Seine” had been seized, Fuqua, 51, wrote a letter to the FBI, pleading that her flea-market find be returned. Her chief argument: The government should recognize her as the painting’s “innocent owner” as defined by federal law. She had no clue, she said, that the piece — for sale in a box with a plastic cow and a Paul Bunyan doll — was a real Renoir. She had no reason to think the painting could have been stolen art and subject to FBI forfeiture.
“I have a layperson’s understanding of art,” she wrote to investigators in December. “I am not an art dealer or broker, art historian or art collector, and have no special education, training or experience which would give me expertise in the field of fine art or in particular, in the identification of authentic French Impressionistic works.”
But Fuqua, who declined to be interviewed for this story, grew up with a mother steeped in fine arts. Her mother — who goes by the professional name Marcia Fouquet in homage to a French ancestor — is a painter who specialized in reproducing the pieces of several famous artists, including Renoir, according to an online biography and people who used to work at her art studio.
Fouquet, 84, has roots in Baltimore. She graduated from Goucher College with a fine-arts degree in 1952 and earned a master’s degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1957. In her thesis, she briefly analyzes a Renoir portrait.
For at least two decades, Fouquet ran an art studio for children and adults at her home in Fairfax County, Va. The Great Falls Art Center offered classes in drawing, painting, pottery, sculpture and art history. Approached there, Fouquet declined to be interviewed.
Thomas Cranmer, a Fairfax painter and retired financial consultant, said Fouquet’s daughter helped at the studio for several years.
Someone who identified himself as Martha’s brother, Matt Fuqua, said he knew about the Renoir. But he seemed confused about its origins. “(My mother has) had it for a long time, probably 50 or 60 years,” he said in an initial interview. “My girlfriend and her friends were cleaning out my mom’s studio, and my sister stepped in and said, ‘Wow, I want this.’ ”
He added that his mother and sister “are keeping me out of the loop. It was supposed to be mine,” he said.
But when a reporter called him a second time, he said he had just spoken with his sister and was changing his account. “She said, ‘Matt, you don’t know what you’re talking about. I got it at a flea market,’ ” he said. “I don’t know the facts.”
He wanted to know what the reporter knew about the Renoir and then asked not to be quoted and hung up. When a reporter called him a third time, Matt Fuqua said someone else posing as him had answered the interview questions and “has been arrested.”
Like her mom, Fuqua became a teacher. She worked as a physical-education teacher in several Virginia and District of Columbia school districts, being laid off in fall 2009.
She soon filed for bankruptcy at the federal court in Alexandria, citing debts of more than $400,000 and assets of about $312,000.
By summer 2010, she was training to work as a blackjack dealer in West Virginia at the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races. In a newspaper interview she happened to give at that time, she described the training for her new job as thrilling but also anxiety-inducing. “My knees are going to be knocking. My hands are probably going to be shaking, and my mouth is going to be dry,” she said about her debut. “It’s a good nervous; it’s not a bad nervous. I’m ready.”
At one time, she was engaged to one of the town’s most high-profile business owners: William Walden, owner and chef of a French restaurant.
But the restaurant, Fleur de Lis, became a source of tension between the couple, who split. In 2003, Walden said his restaurant company was sued by Fuqua, who said he didn’t pay her when she worked at the now-closed eatery as a hostess and manager. “We produced every single document and every single paycheck,” Walden said, and the Loudoun General District judge dismissed the case.
Before his relationship with Fuqua fell apart, Walden said he displayed her mother’s paintings at Fleur de Lis so they could be sold to interested diners. “The mother sold several paintings at my restaurant,” including one for $20,000, he said.
The news release from the Alexandria auction house served up a juicy story: The Potomack Company was selling a “lost” Renoir found by a Virginia woman at a flea market. The news ricocheted from The New York Times to the BBC to “Good Morning America.”
As part of its marketing blitz last September, Potomack arranged phone interviews between Renoir Girl and the media. Her tale was serendipitous: In late 2009, she got bored one day, drove to a flea market off Route 340 in West Virginia and spotted one vendor’s box of kitsch.
Renoir Girl carted the painting to Potomack in a plastic garbage bag. Potomack verified the piece’s authenticity with Bernheim-Jeune, the well-known Paris art gallery and dealer that had originally sold the Renoir to Herbert May in 1926. His wife, Saidie May, was a major arts patron who donated heavily to the Baltimore Museum of Art.
As the Sept. 29 auction date loomed, bidders from Europe and Asia were calling Potomack, debating whether to fly in or compete for the Renoir by phone.
But days before the sale, a reporter uncovered documents at the museum’s library showing that Saidie May had lent the “lost” Renoir to the museum in 1937. Armed with those records, the museum found more paperwork proving the museum had reported the painting stolen on Nov. 17, 1951. And that the company that insured the painting paid the museum a $2,500 claim.
The auction house alerted the FBI, which took possession of the painting.
The biggest mysteries linger: Who stole the Renoir? And how did it wind up, by Fuqua’s account, for sale at a flea market?
Jacqueline Maguire, an FBI spokeswoman, said the bureau’s investigation into the art theft is pending.
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema, meanwhile, will seek to determine the rightful owner of the Renoir, and ordered all parties seeking to claim ownership to make their case in written pleadings this month.
Fuqua’s lawyer declined to discuss the case. Even if the judge allows Fuqua to keep the Renoir, the six-figure payday she once expected isn’t likely.
In court papers, a certified fine-arts appraiser told the FBI the fair market value of the painting is about $22,000.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.