WASHINGTON -- It began as an irresistible story: a flea-market find in West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle of a tiny, long-forgotten painting by a French master.
The back story was equally irresistible: Impressionist artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir was at lunch in Paris by the Seine River in 1879 with his mistress when he grabbed a linen napkin and used it to paint her a keepsake.
Since the announcement last September that the painting -- "Paysage Bords de Seine" ("On the Shore of the Seine"), bought in a $7 box of knickknacks -- was being put up for auction in Alexandria, Va., an intriguing mystery has unfolded with an assortment of characters.
A dowager art collector, perplexed museum officials, the insistent buyer and the FBI all have become part of the tale that appeals to a sense that, like the hopeful people who empty their closets for "Antiques Roadshow," gems lie hidden among the everyday, just waiting to be revealed.
It began after the flea-market buyer, Marcia "Martha" Fuqua, known early on only as "Renoir Girl," approached The Potomack Co. auction house, where owner Elizabeth Wainstein confirmed the unsigned painting's authenticity. Its original sale was in 1926 in Paris. It was not on a registry of stolen artworks, and it was valued at $100,000.
But as international attention grew -- it was a Renoir, after all, even if just a tiny one, at 5 1/2 inches by 9 inches -- Wainstein suddenly called off the auction.
A reporter for The Washington Post, curious about the painting's history and an early owner's ties to the Baltimore Museum of Art, unearthed an entry for it in one of the museum's own catalogs. Museum officials were surprised to learn it had once been displayed in their galleries, and even more shocked when they discovered that "On the Shore of the Seine" had been stolen off their walls in 1951.
Enter the FBI. It seized the painting, setting up a legal tug of war over the rightful ownership of a minor but -- like his signature works -- colorful Renoir, whose value had suddenly plummeted to $22,000 because of the dispute, in the estimation of one art expert.
Now it's up to a federal judge in Virginia to decide who owns the painting, as new questions arise over whether there was ever a flea-market find at all.
"We couldn't have made it up any better," Wainstein said in an interview. She's listed in court documents as a possible claimant, but she has no plans to get embroiled in the fight. Claims are due by Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The Baltimore Museum of Art is expected to make a strong case for ownership.
The 1926 owner was Saidie May, the late Baltimore philanthropist and noted art collector. The wealthy arts patron made hundreds of donations to the museum, with a special emphasis on 20th-century art. She paid for a wing on the museum in her name.
The Renoir was on loan to the museum at the time of its theft, though it was due to be given to the institution as part of May's estate. It was Washington Post reporter Ian Shapira who discovered that the painting was listed in a separate catalog of art that was on loan, even though museum officials had said they had no record of owning the painting.
Further compounding the mystery was why the painting wasn't listed on the Art Loss Register, an international database for missing and stolen works.
May's death in 1951 -- the same year as the theft -- after which her will bequeathed virtually all her artworks to the museum, seems to have only added to the painting's confusing history.
There's yet another twist: The Fireman's Fund Insurance Co., which insured the Renoir and the museum itself until 1991, contends that it's the legal owner of the painting because it had paid a claim of $2,500 on it after the theft. But the company, after initially filing a claim in federal court, has said it will relinquish its claim and transfer the work to the museum, at no cost.
"What I'm trying to do is assign Fireman's Fund's title to the museum," said Ryan Russell, the company's assistant general counsel. "It would be nice for the public to enjoy this painting on the museum's walls, with its even more colorful history."
Marla Diaz, a lawyer for the museum, said it was grateful to the insurance company and its "willingness ... to honor the legacy of Saidie May."