How A Washington Post reporter tracked down a $7 flea-market Renoir painting

A painting bought at a flea market in the US for $7, turned out to be a rare artwork by French Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, valued at up to $100,000. The rare painting was bought by a woman at a Virginia flea market, as part of a box lot that also included a plastic cow and doll. Later she took the painting to a Virginia auction house, where experts confirmed it was Renoir’s Paysage Bords de Seine (Landscape on the Banks of the Seine), a river scene from about 1879, and believed to be originally bought from a Paris gallery in 1926. The oil painting was done on a linen napkin, allegedly for Renoir’s mistress.

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The lucky lady from Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, wished to remain anonymous about owning the very valuable Renoir painting, found in the random $50 box she was drawn to for the Paul Bunyan doll and plastic cow. “I’d never seen a Paul Bunyan doll before,” she told The Huffington Post in a phone conversation, identifying herself only as “Renoir Girl.”

She also liked the painting’s frame, and planned to reuse it, so she began removing the art. When she ripped the backing paper off the frame, her mother advised her to verify the painting’s value before throwing it away, due to the plaque with the name “Renoir” on the front. So she took it to the Potomack Company in August 2012, where Anne Norton Craner, a specialist at the Virginia auction house, thought it was an original Renoir. Further research at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., and confirmation by a Renoir expert satisfied Anne Norton Craner it was an original Renoir.

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It had the right colors. He was using any kind of brush stroke he could use — the full brush, the side of the brush and the tip of the brush. When you see something authentic, it just feels right. But, you can’t go with your gut. You have to check it out.”

The label on the painting’s back provided the title and indicated that the painting had been purchased in 1926 from the Gallerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris, one of the pre-eminent Renoir dealers.

The buyer was Herbert L. May, who at the time was married to a cousin of prominent Baltimore art collectors Claribel and Etta Cone. May’s wife, Saidie Adler May, also donated more than 1,000 items to the Baltimore Museum of Art.

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Herbert May had a special interest in landscape painting, according to Susan Helen Adler, a local historian who last year published a biography of her great-great aunt.

“Saidie really educated both her husbands in terms of buying art,” Adler said. “Buying art and giving to museums was her whole life. If Saidie knew that the Renoir had been found in a flea market, she would have been ecstatic. She loved going to the markets and to the little old dusty shops and bargaining with the dealers and the artists.”

The Mays divorced in 1927, the year after purchasing the Renoir. Chances are that the artwork stayed with Herbert May, though no one knows for certain. What happened to the painting in the intervening 85 years, and how it arrived at the West Virginia flea market, is a mystery.

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Here is where the twist in the story comes in……

The mystery, which generated headlines this month when an Alexandria auction house announced that it would sell what it believes is that Renoir, became clearer this week when a Washington Post reporter entered the library at the Baltimore Museum of Art. In a box full of Saidie May’s letters and artwork receipts lay one major clue: records showing that she had lent the painting to the museum in 1937. The discovery startled museum officials, who had already said the flea-market Renoir never entered their institution.

But armed with the loan registration number, museum officials dug up in their collection records an even-more-astounding clue about the Renoir’s journey. An old museum loan registration document revealed that the tiny landscape, measuring 51 / 2 by 9 inches, was stolen Nov. 17, 1951, from the BMA — shortly after May’s death.

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Now the painting’s highly anticipated auction by the Potomack Company has been canceled. The FBI is investigating, and museum officials are trying to learn more about the painting’s theft. They couldn’t explain why it does not appear on a worldwide registry of stolen and lost art.

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Here is the story of how the Washington Post reporter tracked down the story…..

After discovering the painting was stolen, Washington Post reporter Ian Shapira discovered, causing an auction company to cancel its planned sale and complicating its discoverer’s intention to purchase a new floor for her kitchen with the proceeds.

“I wanted to write a piece that was about the chase, that was about the mystery of the painting, knowing full well that I would find likely nothing at all,” Shapira said by phone Friday morning…..

After getting permission from his editors to skip a scheduled cop shift, Shapira made a trip to Harper’s Ferry, W.V., hoping to find the painting’s vendor. He found someone who thought he’d sold it, and he’d considered writing a story about the connections between auction houses and flea markets.

He began interviewing May’s relatives. One of them said that Herbert May’s wife, Saidie Adler May, had all of her papers stored at the Baltimore Museum of Art, which has a wing dedicated to her. Shapira spent this past Tuesday in the museum’s library, looking through microfilm of May’s papers. They were in no particular order. The museum’s librarian told Shapira she’d been through the papers but hadn’t found anything that suggested the museum had ever had that painting in its possession.

Two-and-a-half hours in, he found a document called “List of Modern Paintings in the Saidie A. May Loan Collection.” It listed them by artist, in alphabetical order.

“I’m obviously looking for the Rs,” Shapira said. “It lists off three Renoir paintings, but not the Renoir painting I’m looking for.”

On the next page, he found it, with a slightly different title, along with a loan registration number that led museum officials to a record that listed the painting as having been stolen. The museum had looked before in its permanent collection records, but because the painting was stolen, the record had never made its way out of the loan archives.

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