WASHINGTON - Months before she dubbed herself "Renoir Girl" and made news as a woman who had found an Impressionist gem at a flea market, Martha Fuqua took the painting to a Falls Church, Va., auction house with a different story.
Fuqua, 51, a driving instructor in Loudoun County, Va., carried the long-missing "On the Shore of the Seine" into Quinn's Auction Galleries on June 1, according to employees of the family-owned business. She was certain that it had been painted by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and said that she'd obtained it from an estate. She also believed that the small landscape would fetch $1 million at auction.
There was no mention of a West Virginia flea market or a $7 box of junk - the story that eventually catapulted Renoir Girl and her artwork into the headlines.
The new details about Fuqua's appointment at Quinn's raise more questions about her at a time when she is fighting in federal court to keep the Renoir, which the FBI seized after it was discovered to have been stolen decades ago from the Baltimore Museum of Art.
"A lot of people come in here and say, 'I think I have X, Y, Z - can you verify it for me?' But (Fuqua) was very adamant she had a Renoir," said the Quinn's decorative arts specialist who dealt with Fuqua last June and who asked to remain anonymous. "I immediately asked her, 'Where did you get this from?' and she said, 'I got it from an estate.' A red flag went up. Typically, an estate would know if it had a high-end painting by such an artist."
Matthew Quinn, whose family owns and runs the auction house, confirmed his employee's account of the encounter with Fuqua, based on his conversations with the specialist last year. The FBI, which is investigating the theft of the art, also interviewed the Quinn's specialist.
In a brief telephone interview, Fuqua disputed the auction house's account but would not discuss many specifics.
"I don't care what you write," said Fuqua, who was profiled in The Washington Post this month after her identity was revealed in court papers.
She worked as a physical education teacher, first in Fairfax County, Va., and Loudoun and then in the District of Columbia, before being laid off in 2009. She struggled financially afterward, filing for bankruptcy in the federal court of Alexandria, Va., with debts of more than $400,000 and assets of about $312,000.
Fuqua laughed at the description of her encounter with the Quinn's specialist.
"I don't know what to tell you about Quinn's," she said. "They're going to say what they want to say."
Then she hung up.
When Fuqua arrived at Quinn's for her appointment, the auction house's specialist quickly brought up the need to verify the Renoir's authenticity. But Fuqua, accompanied by a middle-aged man, questioned whether that was necessary. (The Quinn's specialist does not recall if the man introduced himself. In Fuqua's brief interview with The Post, she said she visited Quinn's by herself.)
The auction house's conservationist inspected the painting and believed it could be real. The specialist asked Fuqua if she would leave the painting for a few days so more research could be done.
Fuqua refused to leave the painting and seemed dissatisfied with the specialist's estimate of what the Renoir might sell for: $20,000 to $40,000.
"She had this sort of fantasy of $1 million," the employee said.
As the appointment ended, the specialist offered Fuqua a chance to meet with Quinn, the company's executive vice president. Fuqua agreed, and the specialist wrote an email to Quinn:
"Hi, I met with a woman today who has a potential Renoir. I had (our conservationist) take a look at it, and he's neither dismissing it nor overly confident," she wrote. "I went through the discussion of the catalog raisonne, but she would feel more comfortable talking to you about the entire procedure. Would you mind calling her? Or can we discuss this further? Her name is Martha Fuqua."
Quinn and Fuqua were scheduled to meet June 12. But when the day came, Fuqua never showed. The company called her but couldn't reach her.
Three months passed. Then, in early September, Quinn came across the burst of news stories about an anonymous woman auctioning off a Renoir at the Potomack Company in Alexandria on Sept. 29.
Initially, Quinn said he was disappointed that his company lost out to a rival.
"I think as a supervisor, I can be very hard on people when we lose something to a competitor," Quinn said. "I just wondered, 'Why did we lose this deal?' "
But as he and his staff read the stories more carefully, the details astounded them. She was now telling Potomack and the media that she had gone to a West Virginia flea market in late 2009 and wound up with the Renoir only because it came in a box holding items she prized more: a Paul Bunyan doll and a plastic cow.
She said she bid on the box and won it for $7, then stashed the painting in a shed, her car and her kitchen over the next two years. She took it to an auction house at the urging of her mother, who suspected that it might be real.
"When it came out that Potomack was selling it, and it's all over ABC News and (other media outlets), my supervisor and I were like, 'What's with this $7 flea-market find?' " the Quinn's specialist said. "We spent a lot of time talking about why would she change her story."