WASHINGTON -- The highly anticipated auction of a painting believed to be a Renoir and purchased for $7 at a West Virginia flea market has been canceled, after evidence surfaced this week that the piece was stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art decades ago.
An FBI investigation is now under way, according to the museum director Doreen Bolger, who said museum officials are trying to learn why the painting does not appear on a worldwide registry of stolen and lost art.
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The discovery of the theft was made after a Washington Post reporter uncovered documents in the museum's library proving that the institution had the painting from 1937 up until at least 1949. Museum officials then searched their archives, where they found paperwork showing that the Impressionist work, "Paysage Bords de Seine," or "Landscape on the Banks of the Seine," was pilfered from their building nearly 61 years ago.
The museum had the painting on loan from one of its famous benefactors, Saidie A. May, a Baltimore native who died in May 1951. Museum records show that the Renoir was stolen on Nov. 17, 1951, just as May's art collection was being bequeathed to the museum for permanent ownership.
The revelations put on hold Saturday's much-ballyhooed auction of the Renoir at the Potomack Company in Alexandria, Va. Elizabeth Wainstein, Potomack's president, said the Virginia woman who made the flea market find was disappointed. But she immediately agreed to halt the sale until the FBI determines the rightful ownership of the painting, which the auction house estimated is worth $75,000 to $100,000. It will remain at the auction house until then, Wainstein said.
The Virginia woman, who wants to remain anonymous, bought the painting in 2010 for $7 in a box with a doll and a plastic cow. She said in an interview that she stashed the box away for nearly two years before her mother suggested it might be a real Renoir.
Shortly after the woman brought the painting to the auction house in July, Potomack checked with the London-based Art Loss Register, the world's largest private database of stolen and lost art, and verified that the Renoir wasn't suspicious. Potomack said it also confirmed the piece's authenticity with the Paris-based Bernheim-Jeune gallery, which sold the painting to the May family in 1926 and keeps a registry detailing the ownership histories behind Renoir pieces.
But neither Bernheim-Jeune nor Potomack could explain what happened to the painting after 1926 or how it came to be sitting in a box of junk at Harpers Ferry Flea Market on Route 340.
Until Thursday, the Baltimore Museum of Art, which has an entire wing named after May, said it had no records of the Renoir ever being exhibited there.
Once the Post showed the museum documents confirming that the painting was part of the May collection, the museum used the painting's loan registration number to look in its collection and loan records for more clues about the Renoir's whereabouts.
What the museum found astonished its staff: documents showing that the museum had noted the painting's theft, and that the BMA had been paid $2,500 by its insurance company for the stolen artwork.