The fact that PBS’ Antiques Roadshow is public television’s highest-rated series speaks volumes about our enduring fascination with stories of long overlooked treasures turning up in attics and basements. A mysterious story that has piqued international interest for 18 months now has a happy ending at the Baltimore Museum of Art. It’s the one about the little painting by Pierre-August Renoir, last seen at the BMA in 1951, before it was stolen, went underground for 61 years, and then turned up again in questionable circumstances at an auction house in Alexandria, VA.
One of the most delectable aspects of the story is that so much fuss has been made about something so very small. The painting, which is called Paysage Bord du Seine (On the Shore of the Seine), measures just 5.5 by 9 inches. But to stand in front of it – even without knowing its extraordinary history – is to be drawn into a quiet, bucolic riverside scene. I don’t know if I was just being fanciful, but I thought I could make out the suggestion of a hovering dragonfly. In any event, you sense the wonderful stillness of a tranquil summer day.
There are so many unanswered questions about this little masterpiece. When exactly was it painted? (The educated guess is c. 1879.) Did Renoir, indeed, paint it for his mistress? If so, who was she? Was it truly painted on a linen napkin, as the elaborate geometric weave suggests? And the biggest question of all: where has it been all these years since it was stolen, before it resurfaced at the auction house in Virginia?
What we do know is that Saidie Adler May, who was one of the BMA’s most generous benefactors (second only to her distant relatives, the Cone sisters), bought the painting with her then husband in Paris in 1925. In 1937, Saidie May loaned 37 objects to the BMA, including On the Shore of the Seine. On her death in 1951, the museum mounted an exhibition featuring 19th century French paintings owned in Maryland, and Renoir’s little painting was one of the works on display. Between 6 p.m. on Friday, November 16 and 1 p.m. on Saturday, November 17, On the Shore of the Seine was stolen from the exhibition. The theft was reported and, the following year, the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company, paid out a $2,500 claim to the BMA. (If the amount seems ridiculously low, remember, this was in 1952!)
Then there is a big blank.
When The Potomack Company auction house issued a press release in September 2012, announcing the auction of the Renoir painting, all hell broke loose with as much abandon as the restrained atmosphere of an art museum will allow. Four claimants to the painting emerged: a woman called Marcia Fuqua, who asserted that she had found the painting at a flea market; the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company, who had paid the claim to the BMA for the stolen painting; the heirs of Saidie May; and the Baltimore Museum of Art. Adding to the complication was the fact that Saidie May had loaned the Renoir to the museum – it wasn’t part of the outright bequest of all her other objects of art.
Enter the FBI and the lawyers. As the story slowly played out over the next 18 months, Saidie May’s heirs relinquished their claim to the painting, and the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company, in a spirit of wonderful generosity, elected to return the painting to the BMA for free. In January this year, the courts decided that Marcia Fuqua’s flea market story was bogus, and so the Renoir has finally returned to the BMA.
No doubt, many stories and speculations will emerge about the background to Renoir’s painting (you can add your own ideas at Blog.artbma.org, on a collaborative storytelling experience, Tales of the Purloined Painting). For now, this diminutive little gem takes pride of place in an exhibition, The Renoir Returns, on view at the BMA through July 20. One assumes that the security has been beefed up since Paysage Bord du Seine was last exhibited 63 years ago!
Baltimore Museum of Art, Renoir