The Baltimore Museum of Art argued in federal court this week that a disputed Renoir supposedly found at a flea market by a Loudoun County driving teacher legally belongs to the 99-year-old institution.
In documents filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., the BMA asserted that no one but the museum can legally own the Renoir because the painting was pilfered while on exhibit there in 1951. Even if someone had purchased the Renoir without knowing that it had been stolen, the piece legally must be returned to the BMA, the museum argued.
"On the Shore of the Seine" is a tiny landscape painting, dating to 1879, that grabbed international attention in late 2012 when an Alexandria, Va., auction company made a sensational announcement: An anonymous Virginia woman going by the name of "Renoir Girl" told them that she had unwittingly bought the long-lost painting for $7 at a West Virginia flea market. The auction house was trying to sell it for as much as $100,000 on her behalf.
Days after the news, the BMA discovered that the Renoir had been stolen from its building in 1951, prompting the FBI to seize the work and ask a federal judge to determine ownership.
Martha Fuqua, the woman who told reporters that she'd bought the piece at the flea market, has argued in court papers that she deserves the painting because she is an "innocent owner" and an art "layman" who had no clue that the Renoir had been stolen and was subject to FBI forfeiture.
Fuqua, who lives in Lovettsville, Va., declined to comment for this article. Her attorney, Wayne Biggs, did not immediately return a phone call or e-mail requesting an interview.
Recent articles in The Washington Post have raised questions about Fuqua's flea market account.
Her mother, Marcia Fouquet, is a painter with fine arts degrees from two Baltimore colleges who specialized in reproducing masterworks, including those of Renoir. Three family friends or former acquaintances told The Post that they remembered seeing the painting in the 1980s and 1990s at Fouquet's home and art studio in Great Falls, Va. A man who lived with Fouquet in the 1980s recalled that she told him she'd gotten the Renoir from a "museum in Baltimore."
Fuqua's brother, Matt Fuqua, also said his mother had the Renoir "for a long time, probably 50 or 60" years. He later retracted his statement after talking with his sister.
Marla Diaz, a BMA attorney, said she is surprised that Fuqua continues to battle in court for the Renoir, given the questions of its provenance.
"We're going to be in the discovery process, and a lot of penetrating questions will be asked of her to try to determine whether she was a good-faith purchaser," Diaz said.
After the BMA reported the Renoir stolen, Fireman's Fund Insurance paid the museum a $2,500 claim. The company has told the BMA that it will give the painting to the museum if a judge awards it ownership.
"If someone gets a painting from a thief, it doesn't matter whether that person got it innocently. That fact is legally irrelevant," said Cliff Hendler, an attorney for Fireman's Fund.