Tuesday 21 January 2014

Judge Orders Return of Stolen Renoir Painting

In 1937, Saidie May, widow of an art collector, loaned "Paysage Bord du Seine," a painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir to the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA).  The BMA exhibited the piece twice, and during the 1951 show "From Ingres to Gauguin," the painting was stolen from a BMA gallery.  The BMA filed a police report and investigation ensued, but the painting was never found.  The painting's owner, Saidie May, died and bequeathed the painting, along with the rest of her art collection, to the BMA that same year.

Around 2009 the painting was purchased at a West Virginia flea market by Marcia Fuqua, in a box of miscellaneous items, for $7.  Fuqua maintains she was unaware that the piece was a genuine Renoir although there was a Renoir nameplate on the frame and materials on the back indicating as much. However, after learning the piece might be valuable, she brought it to a local auction house for valuation in 2012.  The painting's estimated worth was $75,000-$100,000 USD.  Despite the uncertain provenance the piece was scheduled to be auctioned, and just days before the auction the BMA located internal documents showing that the piece had been stolen from it. The FBI then seized the painting and held possession of it until the rightful owner was determined.

In 2013, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia was asked via an action filed by the U.S. federal government (as the FBI was still holding the painting) to resolve who among Fuqua, the BMA, the insurer that had paid on the original loss of the painting, and the heirs of Saidie May and her husband, rightfully owned the painting.  Having narrowed it down to just Fuqua and the BMA, the court ruled in favor of the BMA earlier this month.

After resolving issues related to the choice of which states' laws applied to the case, the court held that Fuqua could not have acquired good title even if she was a good faith purchaser, as a good faith purchaser cannot acquire title to stolen goods under Virginia law.  Accordingly, the court ordered that Paysage Bord du Seine be returned to the BMA.

The BMA's clear records of the painting's theft were instrumental in showing that the piece was not merely misplaced or that it had some other fate that would have allowed title to pass to subsequent possessors. These records make this case distinguishable from similar detinue actions where stolen items were located but the institutions had not reported the loss due to embarrassment, creating a much steeper evidentiary burden for seeking return of the work.

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