Flea-market Renoir reignites tensions between museum and art donor’s descendants


Susan Helen Adler poses outside the Baltimore Museum of Art on Oct. 26. (Ricky Carioti/Washington Post)
November 15, 2012

Susan Helen Adler paced the corridors of the Baltimore Museum of Art, searching for objects that once belonged to her great-great-aunt, the late Saidie Adler May.

In one room, she encountered about a dozen pieces, next to plaques that read “Gift of Saidie A. May.” But Adler, hungry to see more May donations on display, quickly grew upset with how much she thought should be there.

She was already frustrated that one of her great-great-aunt’s paintings, a small Renoir, had turned up in a box of junk at a West Virginia flea market. The painting, she eventually learned, had been stolen from the museum in 1951 and then largely forgotten. How could that have happened?

“Saidie spent her life dedicated to art and educating the public, but other people have made the decision about her legacy. The museum has hundreds of her items in storage. I don’t even know what they have,” said Adler, as she stood inside the museum last month. She wore a white T-shirt with a picture of the stolen Renoir and the words: “How Did I End Up At A Flea Market?”

Behind every museum’s art collection, behind every terse “Gift of” plaque on a museum wall, are the little-known, often fraught histories between museums and their donor families. On one hand, museums feel obligated to keep donor families happy so that other wealthy collectors might give but, on the other hand, feel entitled to exercise their curatorial judgment.


A painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir titled “Paysage Bords de Seine.” (The Potomack Company/AFP/Getty Images)

The headlines about the stolen Renoir — which is in the FBI’s custody — shined a light on an otherwise low-profile Maryland family and its long-standing disappointments with the BMA.

Tensions have simmered for decades between the museum and May’s chief descendants: Adler, 55, a Maryland elementary school behavior specialist and author of May’s biography; and May’s grandniece Amalie Adler Ascher, 85, a former Baltimore Sun gardening columnist.

The relatives said they believe that the museum has not always safeguarded their family’s donations. Until late October, the descendants didn’t know that art donated by May’s sister, Blanche Adler, a prominent BMA donor, also had been stolen from the museum. They also complained that the museum does not display enough of May’s art.

Museum officials said the thefts happened a long time ago, and security has been beefed up considerably since. They noted that the museum can show off only so much from one family’s collection, and that May’s mix of classical and Egyptian works, Renaissance textiles, 20th-century European paintings, and even a Jackson Pollock, was given with no strings attached.

Besides, the BMA said, it plans to bring out even more of May’s pieces — including the Pollock work — and display them starting Sunday in its contemporary wing and northwest galleries.

One May artwork that BMA officials hope to display soon: the stolen Renoir, a landscape piece that dates to 1879, titled “On the Shore of the Seine.”

A painting vanishes

At some point between Nov. 16 and 17, 1951, “On the Shore of the Seine” vanished from the BMA. The city police wrote up a report. And the BMA documented the theft’s scant details on a peach-colored registration card that it filed away in its private loan records.

The heist wasn’t the first time some of the works May donated had been stolen. Five years earlier, a French illuminated manuscript and a small, leather-bound book with a fleur-de-lis on the cover also were taken from the BMA.

Her collection was vast, mainly because May regularly shopped at elite European galleries in the early 20th century. She forged bonds with artists such as André Masson and Charles Despiau. At one point, she gave the Museum of Modern Art its first Picasso.

She could afford to buy what she wanted; she was rich.

Her first husband owned a steel company that had become the world’s largest producer of water-cooled furnace equipment, and it fabricated specialty parts for the Eiffel Tower, according to Adler. May’s second husband, Herbert L. May, whom she divorced in the 1920s, owned a chain of drugstores with his family and was a United Nations delegate.

May died at the age of 72 of a coronary thrombosis in the spring of 1951, six months before the Renoir theft. Once May’s will was executed in 1952, her pieces became the property of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Growing tensions

By the 1970s, tension surfaced between the BMA and one of May’s descendants. The BMA appeared to be worried that Ascher, May’s grandniece, might sue the museum if it wanted to sell or replace some of May’s works.

In a January 1972 letter archived at the BMA’s library, a Maryland law firm advised the institution that the “possibility exists” that Ascher “might sue the Museum if it disposes” of May’s art. Her chances of winning in court, the firm said, “would be very slim.”

Ascher, 85, who lives north of Baltimore, said she never intended to sue the BMA and does not know why the law firm wrote the letter. But, over the years, Ascher said she’s been upset that the museum got rid of three different rooms that May financed in honor of children’s education, BMA members and Renaissance art. Ascher said she’s also disappointed that the BMA doesn’t always display May’s art in its Saidie A. May wing.

“I thought it was a shame the rooms were taken away. But maybe nobody used them. It’s not my call,” Ascher said. “I also felt that, why shouldn’t they put her stuff in her wing? But I guess, as a grandniece, I don’t have a right to tell the museum what to do.”

Doreen Bolger, the BMA’s director, said that May’s gift had no restrictions.

“[Saidie May] chose us to refine her collection,” Bolger said, adding that the majority of its donations come without rules. The big exception: the group of paintings, mainly Matisses, donated by sisters Claribel and Etta Cone. The BMA can never sell Cone items, Bolger said, and must always display the sisters’ works in the Cone gallery, unless they are part of a special or traveling exhibition.

“We’re always wanting to have the best works out all the time,” Bolger said. “We need to change out the pieces, so there’s always something fresh.”

Another theft

May wasn’t her family’s only victim of thefts from the museum. Her sister, Blanche Adler, who helped make the museum a premier destination for renowned prints, lost five of her donations to an alleged inside job at the BMA.

Between the late 1970s and early 1980s, a man named James Billet, a BMA print committee member and a dean at nearby Goucher College, sold 24 prints to Theodore Donson, a New York art dealer. But in 1985, the FBI informed Donson that the prints had been stolen from the BMA.

Donson, who had resold many of the prints, filed a lawsuit that summer in Baltimore federal court against Billet’s estate, alleging that Billet had sold him stolen prints and damaged his business. The lawsuit also listed the titles of the 24 stolen works.

On that list: five Blanche Adler donations. Two of them were Rembrandts.

Billet died before the FBI completed its investigation and was never charged with a crime. His family reached a settlement with Donson, who had been convicted in the 1970s for trying to steal prints from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and for illegally possessing some letters written by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Donson hung up when a reporter brought up those incidents in a phone call Thursday.

Ultimately, the FBI and Jay Fisher, the BMA’s deputy director for curatorial affairs, tracked down Blanche Adler’s five prints.One was in Canada, another in Amsterdam. The prints were returned to the BMA in the 1980s and 1990s.

But other prints stolen in that heist have never been recovered, the BMA said. And, until they were told by The Post, Adler and Ascher never knew that artworks from a second ancestor had been stolen from the BMA.

Selling off some works

Although she spent 12 years writing a book on May, Adler still has many questions about her. Adler, whose mother is on the museum’s board of trustees, wonders why the BMA won’t let her visit the storage areas containing the rest of May’s artworks. She also wishes the BMA would inform relatives when it sells May’s items.

Adler said she learned recently that the BMA had sold May’s three other Renoirs decades ago only because she had been working on the May biography and needed to know which of May’s major pieces the BMA deaccessioned.

The BMA said it always adheres to industry practice by contacting the donor or the donor’s immediate family when it sells any items from their collection. Ascher said the museum sometimes used to notify her in advance of sales, but no longer.

Anne Brown, a BMA spokeswoman, said that sales of some of May’s art have enabled the museum to purchase 72 pieces, including a painting by Alfred Jensen, a South American-born artist who was May’s lover and traveling companion; a suite of Jackson Pollock prints; a Picasso print; and a Matisse sculpture.

What irked Adler the most: The BMA never told her that it had May’s diary while she researched her 300-page May biography, “Saidie May: Pioneer of Early 20th Century Collecting.” (The BMA gift shop sells the book, which Adler self-published, for $40.)

In late October, Adler went to the BMA library and read May’s diary for the first time. As Adler scanned the pages, one sentence stuck out. It was about May’s visit to the Paris gallery where she purchased “On the Shore of the Seine.” May’s line was in a bigger passage dated, curiously, Nov. 21, 1925.

“Back to Bernheim-Jeune and bought small Renoir landscape and Seurat for $2,000,” May wrote.

Adler marveled at what she read. Renoir’s catalogue raisonne — the definitive compendium of the artist’s work — has always said that “On the Shore of the Seine” was purchased by Herbert L. May on Jan. 11, 1926. Adler wondered: Could the catalogue have gotten it wrong?

From Md. to W.Va.

Somehow, after the May family bought the Renoir in the 1920s, the painting ended up in a box at the Harpers Ferry Flea Market in West Virginia in 2010. An anonymous Baltimore native, now living in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, said she bought the piece at the flea market because she liked its frame.

At her mother’s urging, the woman — who calls herself “Renoir Girl” — took the painting to the Potomack Co. auction house, which determined it was real, and scheduled its auction for mid-September.

But the auction was canceled after The Post found documents at the BMA’s library showing that May had lent the Renoir to the museum in the 1930s. Until then, the BMA didn’t know it once had the painting.

In October, the FBI seized the painting from Potomack and placed it in a climate-controlled space, the BMA said. Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, the FBI’s program manager for the art theft division, declined to comment on the investigation into its theft.

The BMA’s insurance company, which the museum has declined to identify, might be entitled to the painting, because it paid a $2,500 claim to the museum after it was reported stolen. Brown, the BMA spokeswoman, said the museum is trying to determine the details of the insurance company’s policy and is waiting for the FBI to complete its investigation.

Once the FBI finishes its investigation, it is likely to ask a judge to determine the painting’s ownership, said Christopher A. Marinello, executive director and general counsel of the London-based Art Loss Register, the world’s largest private database of stolen and lost art.

If both the BMA and Renoir Girl don’t want to risk losing in court, they will probably try to hammer out a settlement, he said.

“Maybe the person who consigned it to the auction company would agree to split the proceeds in some fashion with the museum,” said Marinello, who could not discuss the specifics of this case, because he might be called in to mediate talks between Renoir Girl and the BMA. “The worst thing is for the parties to litigate over this in court because that could take years and cost a half-million dollars — all for a painting that might not be worth a half-million.”

Renoir Girl, who initially gave interviews to several media outlets before her auction was canceled, has declined multiple interview requests since The Post first reported the painting was stolen.

Elizabeth Wainstein, the auction house’s president, said she does not know whether the FBI has interviewed Renoir Girl. “I believe she holds out hope that, in the end, she will have ownership of the painting and would be able to sell it.”

But if the BMA does get the Renoir back and displays it, May’s great-great-niece and biographer said she’ll check it out.

“Out of curiosity,” Adler said, laughing. “It’s not really a great Renoir.”

Ian Shapira is a features writer on the local enterprise team and enjoys writing about people who have served in the military and intelligence communities. He joined the Post in 2000 and has covered education, criminal justice, technology, and art crime.
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