Garage Sale Renoir Painting Sparks Legal Battle With Museum

A one-of-a-kind Renoir painting the size of a napkin is at the center of an intense legal battle between a museum that claims it was stolen and a Virginia woman who claims she bought it for $7.

The tiny work of art is an 1879 landscape by the Impressionist painter titled "Paysage Bords de Seine."

In court papers filed this week, the Baltimore Museum of Art claims the painting was stolen in 1951. 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.

Renoir Bought for $7 at Flea Market Stolen in '50s

In her own court filings, filed last month, Martha Fuqua contests the museum's claim, saying she purchased the painting at a flea market in 2009 for just $7.

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.

Renoir Flea Market Find May Belong to Museum

The two sides will meet in court again next week. Neither Fuqua nor her attorney replied to ABC News' request for comment.

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 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.

"The Baltimore Museum of Art is hopeful that it will soon be able to welcome home the Renoir painting that was stolen from its gallery walls more than 60 years ago. This would be a wonderful way to celebrate the BMA's 100 th anniversary and the legacy of donor Saidie May," a museum spokeswoman said in a statement to ABC News.

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.