What is known, according to the auction house's research, is that the French art gallery Bernheim-Jeune purchased "Paysage Bords de Seine" in June 1925 from a woman named Madame Papillon for 5,000 francs. Anne Norton Craner, Potomack's fine-arts director, suspects that Bernheim-Jeune, a gallery whose owners befriended Renoir, bought the painting from Alphonsine Fournaise Papillon, who sat for Renoir and is depicted in the piece "Luncheon of the Boating Party," which is on display at the Phillips Collection in the District.
In January 1926, Bernheim-Jeune sold the painting to Herbert L. May, a lawyer whose family owned a department store in Pittsburgh, Craner said.
Somehow, the painting traveled from May - a man who split his time between Geneva and New York - to the West Virginia flea market. It was there, in fall 2010, that the Virginia woman, who Potomack says is from the Shenandoah Valley, bought it from a person she does not remember. This year, the woman tried taking the painting out of the frame. But she discovered that too many wooden wedges were holding it in place, so she asked her mother for advice. Her mother, she said, suggested that she take it to a dealer.
Hardly an art expert, the woman wanted to find out who could authenticate her flea market painting. She came across the Potomack's name on the television show "Antiques Roadshow" and made an appointment. In July, she walked through the front door, clutching her Renoir in a tall, white plastic kitchen trash bag.
"Anne just scowled at me," the woman said, laughing. "I just bebopped in there and said, 'Hey, what's going on?' "
Craner sized up the piece immediately.
"She opened up her trash bag, and the light, the color, the handling - it's so masterful," Craner said, recalling the moment. "It did look like a Renoir. There are few artists who capture an image in color in the way he does. He uses the full brush stroke, the side of the brush, the tip of the brush."
She checked the flea market find against a black-and-white photograph of the painting published by the Bernheim-Jeune gallery. Everything matched, down to the random dot on the upper right corner of the canvas and the painting's stock number, which was the same one listed in Bernheim-Jeune's registry.
A couple weeks later, Craner called the woman to give her final confirmation, and since then, she's been deluged with interview requests from around the world. The woman, who is divorced and does not have any children, said she'll attend the auction but keep a low profile. She does look forward to the windfall.
"I've been wanting to get some siding and a new floor in my kitchen. I think I'll be able to do that," the woman said. "And I'm going to take my mother to France."