When a story is too good to be true, alas, it often is. Earlier this month, we told you about the Baltimore native who bought a painting at a West Virginia flea market that turned out to be an authentic Renoir. The painting, “On the Shore of the Seine,” was authentic all right — and also authentically stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art back in 1951.
One of the best things about this story is the intrepid investigation by the Washington Post reporter who uncovered the clues that led to the mystery’s unraveling. BMA officials had been claiming that they’d never shown the Renoir, but the Post found records showing that its previous owner, Baltimore art collector Saidie May, had loaned it to the museum in 1937. In 1951, BMA records revealed, the painting was stolen from the museum by persons unknown.
Now, the fight begins. Does the painting belong to the BMA? Director Doreen Bolger sure thinks so: “We want the painting back. That painting was associated with her, and she’s one of the most important donors in the museum,” she told the Post. “It was her decision that it would come to us.” But the Potomack Company, the auction house that was set to sell the painting before its origin story was revealed, isn’t convinced that it really belongs to the BMA: “We want to see a police report [indicating that the painting was stolen],” says auction house president Elizabeth Wainstein. “We would not sell the painting until we know the proper owner. We just need to the know the truth.” And then, confusingly, some art experts are saying that the real owners should be whatever company insured the painting at the time of its disappearance. But no one is exactly sure who that is.
The BMA has been stolen from before, and on a far grander scale. In 1984, thieves walked away with 34 Old Masters prints; in 1989, 16 antique watches were snagged from the Museum’s decorative arts wing. The majority of those were recovered within a year.
The FBI has taken control of the case. Expect a romantic comedy version of the story (complete with the romance-enabling ghost of Renoir) in a couple of years.