The Tale of a $7.00 Renoir Demonstrates the Surprises and Difficulties of Determining Good Title in the Art World

A small painting purchased for $7.00 at the Harpers Ferry Flea Market in Virginia may turn out to be a work of the Impressionist master Pierre Auguste Renoir stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art over sixty years ago. “Paysage Bords de Seine,” which measures 5.5 by 9 inches and whose estimated value is now over $75,000, was scheduled for sale at the Potomack Company, a small auction house in Alexandria, Virginia this past Saturday. The new owner alerted Potomack of the new information regarding and the sale has been postponed while the F.B.I. conducts its investigation.

The story of the Renoir stars an ensemble cast of characters. Herbert L. May originally purchased the work from Berheim-Jeune, a Paris gallery whose owner was a friend of Renoir, in 1926. His ex-wife, Saidie May, lent the artwork to the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1937. The Renoir was subsequently stolen in November 1951, soon after Sadie May died and bequeathed the remainder of her art collection to the museum. Following the theft, the museum had been paid $2,500 by its insurance company for the painting. Of course, the years between the theft and the flea market purchase remain a mystery.

Elizabeth Wainstein, The Potomack’s owner, said in a statement: “Potomack is relieved this came to light in a timely manner as we do not want to sell any item without clear title.”

Determining clear title is an increasingly unachievable task. The claims of the parties involved in this affair illustrate the great difficulty in tracking title in the art world, even when companies, institutions, and individuals try to do their due diligence. For example, before putting the piece up for auction, Potomack checked the Art Loss Register, the world’s largest private database of stolen and missing art, but did not find it listed. The lack of unified central registry, the traditional secrecy with which many art world transactions occur, and inconsistency in litigation and interstate and international legislation all contribute to the problem of determining good title in the art world. It’s widely reported that the stolen art trade is one of the world’s most profitable illicit international industries, surpassed only by guns and drugs.

Competing claims for ownership of the little Renoir could include: the Baltimore Museum of Art–from which the painting was stolen, the insurance company–which paid a $2,500 claim for the work, The Potomack Company–the auction house about to sell the work, and the Virginia shopper–who unwittingly purchased the painting at the flea market.

The Washington Post surveyed the opinions of some experts in the field and case:

Christopher Marinello, executive director and general counsel of the London-based Art Loss Register, believes that the insurance company is the rightful owner. He explained that most art insurers in the mid-1950s had policies stipulating that they were entitled to the stolen artwork that is recovered for which they have paid claims.

However, the BMA isn’t sure who insured the painting, nor do are they certain of the terms of the policy or standards of the day. Museum officials have explained that records at BMA are not well maintained and it was not until they checked the loan records that they found a record of ever having had the Renoir in its collection at all. The 1951 police report on the theft was not detailed, stating only that between 4:00 pm on November 16 and 1 pm on November 17, “someone stole” the painting and there “no evidence of forced entry.”

Others believe that the painting should return to the museum to which it was lent in the first place. Susan Helen Adler, Saidie May’s niece who also wrote a book about her aunt, believes that the piece should return to the BMA. “It was originally given to them for a purpose,” she said. “It would be wrong for someone else to buy it and know that it had been stolen.”

As the investigation continues, new information may come to light.

Sources: The New York Times, The Washington Post

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