Mystery Over $7 Renoir 'Flea Market' Find Deepens
The identity of the Virginia woman who claimed she paid $7 at a flea market for a napkin-sized painting that turned out to be a Renoir has been revealed. But the case has taken mysterious twists and turns following the release of the owner's identity.
The woman, identified in court documents as Marcia Fuqua, a former physical education teacher who now runs a driving school, came forward as part of her legal battle with the FBI to reclaim ownership of the piece after it was revealed the painting, a river Seine scene titled "Paysage Bords de Seine," was stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1951.
The find by Fuqua, 51, made headlines in September when she turned the painting over to a Virginia auction house where it was expected to command at least $75,000. Instead, a Washington Post reporter uncovered documents showing the piece was stolen from the museum, the auction was called off and the FBI seized the painting.
Who the painting will ultimately go to is now in the hands of a judge in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., after the federal government filed an action there last month, according to the Associated Press.
Along with Fuqua, an insurer, the Fireman's Fund, is also claiming ownership after since it paid a $2,500 claim on the theft back in 1951.
Also in dispute now that Fuqua's identity has been revealed is how much she knew about the painting while it was in her possession.
Fuqua, who could not be reached today by ABCNews.com, claims in her letter to the FBI that she had could not have known the painting was an authentic Renoir.
"I have a layperson's understanding of art," she wrote. "I have no special education, training or experience which would give me expertise…in the identification of authentic French Impressionist work."
The Washington Post reports that Fuqua's mother, known professionally as Marcia Fouquet, 84, is, "a painter who specialized in reproducing the pieces of several famous artists, including Renoir," and was assisted by her daughter in running an art studio out of her Fairfax County home, according to the studio's former vice president.
In a statement released by the Potomack Company auction house last September, when the auction was announced, it was indicated that Fuqua's mother played a role in encouraging her daughter to preserve the "flea market" find.
Fuqua told the auction house that she was "more interested in the frame than the landscape, and started taking it apart," Anne Norton Craner, the Potomack Company fine arts specialist, said in the statement.
Fuqua had, according to the statement, apparently thrown the painting's wrapping paper into the trash, but her mother advised her to examine the painting first before discarding it. She noticed that a plaque that said "Renoir" was affixed to the painting, so she took the canvas to the Potomack Company to have it checked.
The Washington Post reports they spoke with someone who identified himself as Fuqua's brother, Matt Fuqua, and said the painting belonged to their mother and had been in the family for decades.
"[My mother has] had it for a long time, probably 50 or 60 years," he told The Post. "…All I know is my sister didn't just go buy it at a flea market. .?.?. My sister kind of snagged it out of my mom's art studio."
When reached by the Post a second time, the man recanted his story after saying he had spoken with his sister. He told the paper in a third interview that an imposter who, "has been arrested," posed as him during the interview.
When Fuqua's find was originally announced, media coverage said the records showed the painting was last purchased by an international lawyer in Paris in 1926.
The documents discovered in the Baltimore Museum's library by the Washington Post 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 in May of that year.
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.
"We were caught by surprise," BMA director Doreen Bolger said at the time.
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.