WASHINGTON - The Virginia woman eyed the box of kitsch at the West Virginia flea market and figured she'd discovered a true steal. Surely, she calculated, she could resell that brown leather Paul Bunyan doll to folk art enthusiasts for a tiny profit. As for the rest of the box's items, she loved the plastic cow. The cow would get displayed in her living room.
But the third item, a painting - with swirls of green and pink, carrying a plaque emblazoned with the word RENOIR - did not excite her so much. She liked only its golden frame and assumed the thing was a fake.
So the woman forked over $7. She drove home. She stuck the box in a shed.
Now, about two years after her random trip to a flea market on Route 340, the woman is selling the painting through the Alexandria, Va.-based Potomack auction house, which determined that the piece is a bona fide work by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the renowned French impressionist. Potomack thinks the painting could fetch as much as $100,000, if not more, when it goes on the auction block Sept. 29.
"When (the auction company) told me it was real, I had to sit down for a minute. I really didn't believe it. I was like, what? Really? I was a little floored," said the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing concerns that she'd be overwhelmed by the news media. "I can't tell you what kind of work I do. I am self-employed, and I am well-known for what I do." She added that her family is French, she works in education and she is thrilled to be selling a Renoir.
"I was just glad that while I had the painting for so long my house didn't catch on fire and I wasn't rear-ended by a tractor-trailer or that the birds didn't tear it up," she said.
The woman's fortuitous discovery fills in a mysterious gap in the history of the painting, which dates to 1879 and is titled "Paysage Bords de Seine," or "Landscape on the Banks of the Seine." That such a painting somehow wound up at flea market in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley region more than 130 years after its creation exposes an uncomfortable truth about high art: It's hard to figure out what's a Renoir and what's junk.
At six-year-old Potomack, some clients have brought in items on the hunch that one of them could score big. About four years ago, one client showed up with a box of his father's artwork, and the auction house determined the man had a painting by John D. Graham, a deceased American modernist. It sold for $88,000.
But the Potomack experts said they've never encountered a flea market bargain that turned out like this.
"This is definitely an extraordinary case, especially because of the woman's colorful story," said Elizabeth Wainstein, Potomack's owner. "Usually when people have things that we're able to authenticate, they aren't pieces by such recognized artists or (of) such historical value. I've been in the business for 25 years, and we spend our lives chasing the end of a rainbow like this."
Renoir's painting depicts a blurry image of the Seine river, shrouded by green shrubbery and purple and pinkish flowers.