A decades-old theft report discovered by police in the United States on Friday could be the clue that links a piece of artwork purchased for $7 to a costly Pierre-Auguste Renoir painting that was stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1951.
The report dated November 17, 1951 describes Renoir’s “On the Shore of the Seine,” as a “river scene in pink and blue.” It confirms that the painting was stolen from the museum, and notes that police found no evidence of forced entry. The case has never been solved.
A Virginia woman purchased a painting that matches the description in a box of junk at a West Virginia flea market two years ago, and had the piece valued by The Potomack Company auction house this summer.
Experts there confirmed it was the Renoir masterpiece “On the Shore of the Seine,” worth up to $100,000, and found that the frame contained a plaque with the famous painter’s name on it.
Where the artwork came from was a mystery, and the owner – who has not publicly revealed her name – made plans to sell it at an auction scheduled for Saturday.
But an investigation by The Washington Post this week found the Impressionist painting may have been stolen from the BMA. The Washington Post reporter also discovered evidence that the painting was on loan to the museum from 1937 until 1951 from an art collector named Saidie May, whose ex-husband bought the painting in 1926 from a Paris gallery.
“Obviously, we take our responsibility for our collections and the things entrusted to us very seriously. We have to do more research and get to the bottom of the real story, and we’re still in the midst of that process,” said BMA Director Doreen Bolger in an interview with The Washington Post. “We have a lot of written and printed records, and they are filed in many areas of the museum.”
In light of the new information, The Potomack Company cancelled the auction of the Renoir painting scheduled for Saturday, while the Federal Bureau of Investigation investigates the case to confirm the painting’s rightful owner.
“I just figured it would be a matter of time before somebody made a claim, because those things just don’t disappear,” said Robert Wittman, a former FBI investigator of art thefts.