Museum officials aren’t sure who insured the painting. “We don’t know with complete certainty,” Bolger said. “I don’t know what the rules of insurance were at the time. Remember, this was 1951. I was only 2 years old at the time.”
Many of the museum’s records, Bolger said, are not as organized as they could be. When news of the flea-market Renoir surfaced in early September, Bolger said museum officials checked permanent-collection records to see if they had ever had it. They found no records of the landscape, which is dated to 1879.
They figured that was the only place they needed to check because May, who has a wing at the BMA named for her, had bequeathed her art collection to the museum. But the museum did not check its loan records.
It wouldn’t be the first time a May artwork has been stolen. The museum informed May in 1946 that it lost a French illuminated manuscript from its Renaissance room, along with a small leather-bound book with a fleur-de-lis on the cover.
“I feel that both items were deliberate thefts, and if two people work together one can draw the guard’s attention while the other vaults the rail in that room,” a museum official wrote May in a letter stored in the museum’s library.
On Friday, Baltimore police provided a copy of the original police report, from 1951. James M. Porter Jr., executive assistant with the museum, told an officer that sometime between 4 p.m. Nov. 16 and 1 p.m. Nov. 17, “some one stole” the painting. “There was no evidence of forced entrance,” the report states.
Wainstein, Potomack’s president, said the Virginia woman who made the flea-market find was disappointed. But the woman also immediately agreed to halt the sale until the FBI determines the rightful ownership of the painting, which the auction house estimates is worth $75,000 to $100,000.
Sharon Flescher, an art historian and executive director of the nonprofit International Foundation for Art Research, said the value of an artwork depends on its size, subject, condition, quality and rarity. One tiny Renoir landscape sold for $35,000 in June, she noted, while larger, more high-profile works can command millions.
The Virginia woman, who wants to remain anonymous, bought the landscape in 2010 for $7 in a box with a doll and a plastic cow. She stashed the box for nearly two years before her mother suggested that the painting might be a real Renoir.
The woman brought the painting to the auction house in July. Potomack checked with the Art Loss Register to make sure the piece hadn’t been stolen and confirmed its authenticity with the Paris-based Bernheim-Jeune gallery, which sold the painting to the May family in 1926 and keeps a registry detailing the ownership histories of Renoir pieces.
Susan Helen Adler, a great-niece of Saidie May who has written a book about her, said the news about the Renoir saddened her.
“I hope it gets returned to the museum where it belongs and where it was originally given to them for a purpose,” Adler said. “It would be wrong for someone else to buy it and know that it had been stolen.”
Lynda Robinson and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.