BALTIMORE - Susan Helen Adler paced the corridors of the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), searching for objects that once belonged to her great-great-aunt, the late Saidie Adler May.
In one room, she encountered about a dozen pieces, next to plaques that read "Gift of Saidie A. May." But Adler, hungry to see more May donations on display, quickly grew upset with how much she thought should be there.
She was already frustrated that one of her great-great-aunt's paintings, a small Renoir, had turned up in a box of junk at a West Virginia flea market. The painting, she eventually learned, had been stolen from the museum in 1951 and then largely forgotten. How could that have happened?
"Saidie spent her life dedicated to art and educating the public, but other people have made the decision about her legacy. The museum has hundreds of her items in storage. I don't even know what they have," said Adler, as she stood inside the museum in October. She wore a white T-shirt with a picture of the stolen Renoir and the words: "How Did I End Up At a Flea Market?"
Behind every museum's art collection, behind every terse "Gift of" plaque on a museum wall, are the little-known, often fraught histories between museums and their donor families. On the one hand, museums feel obligated to keep donor families happy so that other wealthy collectors might give but, on the other hand, feel entitled to exercise their curatorial judgment.
The headlines about the stolen Renoir - which is in the FBI's custody - shined a light on an otherwise low-profile Maryland family and its long-standing disappointments with the BMA.
Tensions have simmered for decades between the museum and May's chief descendants: Adler, 55, a Maryland elementary school behavior specialist and author of May's biography; and May's grandniece Amalie Adler Ascher, 85, a former Baltimore Sun gardening columnist.
The relatives said they believe that the museum has not always safeguarded their family's donations. Until late October, the descendants didn't know that art donated by May's sister, Blanche Adler, a prominent BMA donor, also had been stolen from the museum. They also complained that the museum does not display enough of May's art.
Museum officials said the thefts happened a long time ago, and security has been beefed up considerably since. They noted that the museum can show off only so much from one family's collection, and that May's mix of Classical and Egyptian works, Renaissance textiles, 20th-century European paintings, and even a Jackson Pollock, was given with no strings attached. More of May's pieces - including the Pollock work - are now on display.
One May artwork that BMA officials hope to display soon: the stolen Renoir, a landscape piece that dates to 1879, entitled "On the Shore of the Seine."
At some point between Nov. 16 and 17, 1951, "On the Shore of the Seine" vanished from the BMA. The city police wrote up a report. And the BMA documented the theft's scant details on a peach-colored registration card that it filed away in its private loan records.
The heist wasn't the first time some of the works May donated had been stolen. Five years earlier, a French illuminated manuscript and a small, leather bound book with a fleur-de-lis on the cover also were taken from the BMA.
Her collection was vast, mainly because May regularly shopped at elite European galleries in the early 20th century. She forged bonds with artists such as Andr Masson and Charles Despiau. At one point, she gave the Museum of Modern Art its first Picasso.
She could afford to buy what she wanted; she was rich.
Her first husband owned a steel company that had become the world's largest producer of water-cooled furnace equipment, and it fabricated specialty parts for the Eiffel Tower, according to Adler. May's second husband, Herbert May, whom she divorced in the 1920s, owned a chain of drugstores with his family and was a United Nations delegate.
May died at the age of 72 from a coronary thrombosis in the spring of 1951, six months before the Renoir theft. Once May's will was executed in 1952, her pieces became the property of the BMA.
By the 1970s, tension surfaced between the BMA and one of May's descendants. The BMA appeared to be worried that Ascher, May's grandniece, might sue the museum if it wanted to sell or replace some of May's works.
In a January 1972 letter archived at the BMA's library, a Maryland law firm advised the institution that the "possibility exists" that Ascher "might sue the Museum if it disposes" of May's art. Her chances of winning in court, the firm said, "would be very slim."
Ascher, 85, who lives north of Baltimore, said she never intended to sue the BMA and does not know why the law firm wrote the letter. But, over the years, Ascher said she's been upset that the museum got rid of three different rooms that May financed in honor of children's education, BMA members and Renaissance art. Ascher said she's also disappointed that the BMA doesn't always display May's art in its Saidie A. May wing.
"I thought it was a shame the rooms were taken away. But maybe nobody used them. It's not my call," Ascher said. "I also felt that, why shouldn't they put her stuff in her wing? But I guess, as a grandniece, I don't have a right to tell the museum what to do."
Doreen Bolger, the BMA's director, said that May's gift had no restrictions.
"Saidie May] chose us to refine her collection," Bolger said, adding that the majority of its donations come without rules. The big exception: the group of paintings, mainly Matisses, donated by sisters Claribel and Etta Cone. The BMA can never sell Cone items, Bolger said, and must always display the sisters' works in the Cone gallery, unless they are part of a special or traveling exhibition.
"We're always wanting to have the best works out all the time," Bolger said. "We need to change out the pieces, so there's always something fresh."
May wasn't her family's only victim of thefts from the museum. Her sister, Blanche Adler, who helped make the museum a premier destination for renowned prints, lost five of her donations to an alleged inside job at the BMA.
Between the late 1970s and early 1980s, a man named James Billet, a BMA print committee member and a dean at nearby Goucher College, sold 24 prints to Theodore Donson, a New York art dealer. But in 1985, the FBI informed Donson that the prints had been stolen from the BMA.