‘Renoir Girl’ may have been trying to sell stolen landscape painting on the sly

December 5, 2013

Was the woman known as “Renoir Girl” shopping her mother’s painting around to Washington area auction ­houses without her knowledge?

Amid the wrangling in federal court over the tiny landscape stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art 60 years ago, another person has emerged with information about the artwork supposedly purchased for $7 at a flea market by Martha Fuqua, a.k.a. Renoir Girl.

Mitchell Buster rented a room for three months last year at the Fairfax County home of Renoir Girl’s mother, the late Marcia Fouquet.

Buster, a car and motorcycle technician, said he often talked with Fouquet, who ran an art studio in Great Falls for decades, about their mutual affection for art. She told him about her Renoir.

“I said to the mother, ‘Are you kidding me? You have a Renoir?’ ” Buster recalled. “She said she bought the Renoir in a collection of other paintings from some art dealer and it’s a family heirloom. She told me, ‘It can never leave the family.’ ”

She said that she’d have her daughter bring it over, Buster said, apparently unaware that the piece had already been seized by the FBI after the daughter’s failed attempt to have it auctioned.

“The mother wanted me to see it. But she couldn’t show it to me at the time because she said her daughter’s been holding it for safekeeping,” Buster said.

At the time of their conversation, the Renoir piece, titled “On the Shore of the Seine,” was generating news because of its intriguing flea market back story, but the daughter had not yet identified herself publicly and was going only by the name “Renoir Girl.”

When reached by phone for comment about Buster’s account, Martha Fuqua hung up; she did not return a subsequent voice-mail message. Her attorney, T. Wayne Biggs, did not respond to a request for an interview.

Buster never got to see the Renoir. “The mother came back to me a couple weeks later and said, ‘It looks like my daughter is not bringing the Renoir,’ ” he said. “There wasn’t a whole lot of conversation about why. I wasn’t connected with the news at the time, and I didn’t know the family was in litigation over the Renoir. The mother had no clue, too. Why else would she promise that her daughter bring the painting over to show it to me?”

Fuqua, a Loudoun driving instructor who says she found the Renoir at a West Virginia flea market in 2009 in a box full of junk, tried auctioning off the painting, with an estimated value of $75,000 to $100,000, in September 2012.

Days before the sale at the Potomack Co. auction house in Alexandria, the Baltimore Museum of Art uncovered internal documents showing that the piece was reported stolen from its building in 1951.

The news prompted the FBI to seize the Renoir, leading to the auction’s cancellation and what is now a heated federal civil court case pitting Fuqua against the BMA over the painting’s ownership. In January, a federal judge is to decide who’ll get to keep the painting.

Fuqua’s mother, a painter who went to art college in Baltimore at the time of the Renoir’s reported theft in 1951, died in September at the age of 85. Fouquet didn’t learn that her daughter had tried selling the painting until early this year, when Fuqua’s identity was unmasked in court papers and The Washington Post called the family for comment.

In court papers filed this week to dismiss Fuqua’s claims, the BMA cited evidence proving that it owned the painting thanks to a bequest from a longtime donor; exhibited the piece twice; and reported it stolen to Baltimore police in 1951.

Buster, a service adviser at a Lexus dealership in Fairfax, is the latest of several people who have cast skepticism about Fuqua’s anecdote about the flea market. Three other former friends or tenants of Fouquet’s have told The Post that they saw the painting hanging in her Great Falls home in the 1980s or 1990s.

Fuqua’s only sibling, Matt Fuqua, said in a court deposition last month that his mother wanted his sister to “return the painting to its rightful owner — the museum — so all of this goes away.”

Buster said he learned about Martha Fuqua’s flea-market Renoir story on Nov. 25, when he was listening to a news report on WGTS (91.9 FM). Afterward, Buster called up the person who took his deposit when he moved into the Fouquet home: Matt Fuqua.

“When I heard it on the radio, I put it together in my mind and was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ” he said. “Martha didn’t buy it at a flea market.”

Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

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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