It's been a long journey home for one small painting. After disappearing in the night over 60 years ago, the whereabouts of a Pierre-Auguste Renoir painting has been a mystery for the Baltimore Museum of Art.
The napkin-sized painting, entitled On the Shore of the Seine, has recently made headlines again after surfacing at a flea market, where a Virginia woman claims she bought it for $7. The Baltimore Museum of Art claims the painting was stolen in 1951 and opened a court case to win it back. As evidence, the museum provided a 60-year-old police report, old museum catalogues and a receipt showing that a patron bequeathed the painting to the museum.
In her own court filings, Martha Fuqua contested the museum's claim, saying she purchased the painting at a flea market in 2009.
The legal dispute began last September when the painting was expected to command at least $75,000 in a scheduled auction at the Alexandria, Va.-based Potomack Company auction house.
Just before the auction, a reporter for The Washington Post uncovered documents from the Baltimore Museum of Art showing that the painting was stolen from the museum in 1951.
The auction was canceled as a result and the FBI seized the painting and opened an investigation into the theft.
Fuqua's brother and former family friends have told The Washington Post the painting had been at Fuqua's mother's home prior to when she claims to have purchased it at a West Virginia flea market.
When Fuqua's find was announced, media coverage said the records showed the painting was last purchased by an international lawyer in Paris in 1926.
The documents discovered by the Washington Post reporter indicated that the painting belonged to Saidie May, a well-known art collector and major benefactor to the BMA. The artwork was reported stolen on Nov. 17, 1951, according to the documents, shortly after May's death.
The painting does not appear on a worldwide registry of stolen art, however, and the painting had not yet been formally accepted into the museum's collection before it was taken, which is why museum officials did not recognize the loss.
Now, after a judge in the U.S. Eastern District Court in Alexandria ruled that the painting be returned, the Renoir is officially back on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art, more than 62 years after it was stolen from the building.
"It's a moment we've been looking forward to," BMA Director Doreen Bolger told The Washington Post.
Renoir was a leading painter of the Impressionist period. Over his career he created thousands of paintings, a few of which have fetched tens of millions of dollars at auction in recent years.
He died in 1919 at the age of 78.