ALEXANDRIA, Va. – A federal judge will seek to unravel an art mystery and determine the rightful owner of a napkin-sized painting by French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir that a Virginia woman says she bought at a flea market for $7.
The ownership is in dispute after documents were uncovered showing a Baltimore museum reported the painting stolen more than 60 years ago.
The painting has been seized by the FBI, and the federal government filed an action last month in U.S. District Court in Alexandria asking a judge to determine who should keep the painting.
Among the contenders is a Lovettsville woman, Marcia "Martha" Fuqua, who has told the FBI that she bought the painting at a West Virginia flea market in late 2009 for $7 and stored it in a plastic trash bag for two years before having it authenticated as a genuine Renoir.
Last year, Fuqua planned to have the painting sold at auction, where it was expected to fetch at least $75,000. But the auction was postponed after it was learned that the Baltimore Museum of Art reported the painting stolen in 1951. Records show an insurer, the Fireman's Fund, paid a $2,500 claim on the theft.
The insurer says it is now the rightful owner, based on payment of that claim.
According to an appraisal commissioned by the FBI, Renoir painted "Paysage bords de Seine," or On the Shore of the Seine, on a linen napkin in 1879 on the spot at a riverside restaurant for his mistress.
The appraiser says the Renoir's value is about $22,000, much less than the auction house estimated, because Renoir's paintings have fallen out of favor with some art collectors who consider them old fashioned and because questions about the painting's ownership and possible theft diminish its value to collectors.
Fuqua, who had managed to remain anonymous until the court case was filed, told the FBI under penalty of perjury that she bought the painting at a flea market in Harpers Ferry, W. Va., never believing the painting to be a true Renoir, even though a plate reading "RENOIR" is attached to the frame. She describes herself as an "innocent buyer" and questions the FBI's authority to seize the painting.
"Because I am not an art historian, collector, appraiser, or dealer, I lacked the expertise to identify the Renoir Painting's authenticity, origins or previous ownership history," she wrote.
On Friday, The Washington Post reported that Fuqua's 84-year-old mother, who operated an art school for decades in Fairfax County under the name Marcia Fouquet, is an artist who specialized in reproducing paintings from Renoir and other masters. The Post said Fouquet had artistic links to Baltimore in the 1950s, when the painting was stolen, and graduated from Goucher College with a fine arts degree in 1952.
A man who identified himself as Fuqua's brother, Owen M. Fuqua, told the Post that the painting had been in the family for 50 or 60 years and that "all I know is my sister didn't just go buy it at a flea market."
The man later retracted his story, and ultimately said it was another person using his name who gave the initial interview.
Efforts by the AP Friday to reach Martha and Owen Fuqua Friday were unsuccessful. Martha Fuqua's lawyer did not return a call Friday seeking comment.
The FBI has an ongoing investigation, according to spokeswoman Lindsay Godwin.
Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema ordered all parties seeking to claim ownership of the painting to make their case in written pleadings later this month.