Before his relationship with Fuqua fell apart, Walden said he displayed her mother’s paintings at Fleur de Lis so they could be sold to interested diners. “The mother sold several paintings at my restaurant,” including one for $20,000, he said.
Earlier this year, Walden said, Fuqua called him to catch up.
“She just said, ‘I had to hear your voice.’ I said, ‘Wow. How are you doing?’ ” recalled Walden, who now lives in South Florida, where he is opening a new French restaurant.
But she didn’t say anything about the Renoir. “She never let on that this was happening,” said her former fiance.
An intriguing story
The press release from the Alexandria auction house served up a juicy story: The Potomack Company was selling a “lost” Renoir found by a Virginia woman at a flea market.
The news ricocheted from the New York Times to the BBC to “Good Morning America.” As part of its marketing blitz last September, Potomack arranged phone interviews between Renoir Girl and the media. Her tale was serendipitous: In late 2009, she got bored one day, drove to a flea market off Route 340 in West Virginia and spotted one vendor’s box of kitsch.
She said the box had a small painting with an enticing gold frame. The painting was unsigned but had a “Renoir” plaque on its frame. She never thought something lying around like that could be an actual Renoir.
“I bid on the box and won the box,” she said in her September interview with The Post, although she could not remember the name of the flea market nor who sold it to her. Vendors at the Harpers Ferry Flea Market off Route 340 in West Virginia said they did not recall selling the Renoir, but they did not rule out the possibility that it could have been there.
Renoir Girl said she stowed the painting at her home (and, at one point, in a shed), practically forgetting it was there. It wasn’t until early 2012, she said, that her mother urged her to get the piece authenticated.
“[My mother] has an art history background. She said, ‘You might want to get someone to look at it,’ ” she told The Post. “She said that the whole canvas was not filled with paint, and Renoir was famous for that.”
Renoir Girl carted the painting to Potomack in a plastic garbage bag. Potomack verified the piece’s authenticity with Bernheim-Jeune, the well-known Paris art gallery and dealer that had originally sold the Renoir to Herbert L. May in 1926. His wife, Saidie May, was a major arts patron who donated heavily to the Baltimore Museum of Art.
As the Sept. 29 auction date loomed, bidders from Europe and Asia were calling Potomack, debating whether to fly in or compete for the Renoir by phone.
But days before the sale, a Post reporter uncovered documents at the BMA’s library showing that Saidie May had lent the “lost” Renoir to the museum in 1937. Armed with those records, the BMA then found more paperwork proving the museum had reported the painting stolen on Nov. 17, 1951. And that the company that insured the painting paid the BMA a $2,500 claim.
The auction house was floored and alerted the FBI, which later took possession of the painting.
But the biggest mysteries linger: Who stole the Renoir? And how did it wind up, by Fuqua’s account, for sale at a flea market?
Jacqueline Maguire, an FBI spokeswoman, said the bureau’s investigation into the art theft is pending.
Doreen Bolger, the BMA’s director, hopes the Alexandria federal judge will enable the museum to get “On the Shore of the Seine” back into its galleries.
Ryan Russell, an assistant general counsel at the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company, which paid the insurance claim on the painting, said the company wants to return the Renoir to the BMA, for free.
Fuqua’s lawyer declined to discuss the legal struggle over the painting or any other aspect of the case. Even if the judge allows Fuqua to keep the Renoir, the six-figure payday she once expected isn’t likely.
In court papers, a certified fine arts appraiser told the FBI that the painting is not worth even close to $100,000. The appraiser put the fair market value of the Renoir at about $22,000.
Julie Tate and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.