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.
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.”
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.