What was the feel-good, ersatz Antiques-Roadshow story of the summer may soon be one of the most prominent art law issues in the country. A painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir entitled “Paysage Bords de Seine” that was purchased at a flea market in 2010 for $7 and authenticated this year as genuine may turn out to have been stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art.
National news reported earlier this year the story of a Virginia woman who purchased a small painting in a golden frame with “RENOIR” engraved onto its frame. Assuming it was a copy, she paid $7, brought it home, and gave it little further thought. Earlier this year she brought it to the Potomack Co. auction house, which alerted her to the fact that it seemed to be a genuine Renoir. An auction was scheduled, with estimates ranging as high as six figures.
At that point there was not much of a legal angle to the story. After the auction was announced, however, a Washington Post reporter examined the library at the Baltimore Museum of Art (what prompted the inquiry is still unclear). There, in a box of effects relating to the Sadie May Collection given to the museum, the reporter found a provenance card that seemed to be for the painting to be auctioned. The card notes that the painting, on a linen napkin, was painted for Renoir’s mistress, apparently at a restaurant on the Seine.
As may be news to the non-museum public, early twentieth century acquisition records often consist of nothing more than printed index cards, which were carefully maintained and used as evidence of the history, or provenance, of the painting.
In this case, the card concludes with the entry “STOLEN FROM THE GALLERY, Nov. 17, 1951.” No further details, no police report, just that. The director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, Doreen Bolger, was quoted in the Washington Post as saying, “We want the painting back. That painting was associated with her, and she’s one of the most important donors in the museum,” she said. “It was her decision that it would come to us.”
The auction house, however, has concerns that Sadie May might not have owned it when she gave it to the museum in the first place. Further complicating matters is the possibility that the museum may have received some money for an insurance claim, raising the question of how that would affect title to the painting (if it were indeed the museum’s). And, since so much time has passed since all of these events that it is unclear which of these issues could be asserted.
The looks to be a complicated question of history, records, legitimacy of sale, and a host of art law issues.