By Ian Shapira
The Washington Post
Saturday, January 11, 2014 —
A long-missing Renoir is headed back to the Baltimore Museum of Art, from which it had been stolen more than 60 years ago. A federal judge in U.S. District Court in Alexandria on Friday ordered that the 135-year-old "On the Shore of the Seine" be returned to the museum, rejecting a Northern Virginia woman's claim that she bought it for $7 in 2009 at a West Virginia flea market, didn't know it was stolen and deserved to keep it.
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema's decision abruptly ended an intriguing art drama whose unlikely main character has been Martha Fuqua, 51, a Loudoun driving instructor. In the fall of 2012, Fuqua tried auctioning off her alleged flea market discovery under the anonymous name "Renoir Girl" until records surfaced showing the painting had been stolen in 1951 from the Baltimore museum. The revelation prompted the FBI to seize the Renoir from the auction house and ask the federal court to determine ownership.
The BMA argued that, regardless of whether Fuqua found the Renoir at a flea market, no one can have legal title to stolen artwork.
Brinkema agreed in her ruling, granting summary judgment in favor of the BMA. She said the museum had overwhelming evidence that the painting had been stolen in November 1951 and that Fuqua offered not a "scintilla" of proof to the contrary.
Brinkema's decision cancels a trial that had been scheduled for next week and wipes out what could have been a useful windfall for Fuqua, who in 2009 filed for bankruptcy, citing debts of more than $400,000.
Fuqua did not show up at the hearing Friday. Reached by phone for a reaction, Fuqua seemed confused. "Reaction to what?" she asked. "I don't even know what the judge's ruling was."
Told the judge had ruled against her, Fuqua said: "Darn." Then, she added: "Well, I guess I gotta wait for my lawyer to call me." Asked if she was disappointed, she said, "Of course."
Many of Fuqua's family acquaintances have cast doubt on her flea market story, telling The Washington Post that they remember seeing the Renoir in the 1980s and 1990s at the Fairfax County home of her mother, Marcia Fouquet, who attended art college in Baltimore at the time of the painting's theft in 1951. (The mother passed away in September at the age of 85.)
Her attorney, T. Wayne Biggs, who tried persuading the judge that the museum's evidence that the painting was stolen was not properly authenticated, declined to comment after the hearing.
Marla Diaz, the BMA's attorney, said that she was "delighted" by the judge's ruling and that the museum has plans to display the piece.