In federal court papers filed Tuesday, the Baltimore Museum of Art fought back against claims brought by a Loudoun County driving instructor that she deserves to own a long-missing Renoir painting that she says she bought at a flea market in 2009 but that the museum says was stolen from its building more than 60 years ago.
At a hearing scheduled for Jan. 10 in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, the museum will ask a judge to dismiss Martha Fuqua’s ownership claims to the Renoir, an 1879 landscape called “On the Shore of the Seine.”
The BMA says the Renoir was stolen while on exhibit in November 1951 and should be returned to the museum regardless of whether Fuqua acquired it at a flea market.
“It is undisputed that a person cannot gain good title through a thief,” according to the museum’s filings.
The museum cited numerous documents in support of its assertions that it once owned the painting and that the piece had been reported stolen. Those documents include a Baltimore police report, old museum catalogues for exhibitions featuring the painting, and a receipt indicating that the original owner — a longtime BMA donor — had lent the painting to the museum. The donor later bequeathed the painting to the museum.
“The material fact that the painting was stolen from the BMA’s possession in November, 1951 is clear from the BMA’s records and from the 1951 City of Baltimore Police Report,” the BMA wrote. “Fuqua has not and cannot offer any evidence disputing this fact. Fuqua cannot, therefore, under any theory hold good title to the Painting.”
If a federal judge does not grant the museum’s request for summary judgment, then a trial is scheduled for Jan. 15.
The little-known painting burst into headlines in fall 2012, when the Potomack Co., an Alexandria auction house, announced that an anonymous woman — later identified as Fuqua — was selling an authentic Renoir she had supposedly found at a flea market.
Days before the auction, the BMA discovered records that it had once owned the painting and had reported it stolen. The FBI seized the painting and asked a federal judge to determine who should have it: the BMA or Fuqua.
In the past year, Fuqua’s credibility has been questioned. Some former friends of her family’s have told The Washington Post that they remember seeing the painting at the Fairfax County home of her mother, Marcia Fouquet, who died in September. Fouquet, a painter, was attending art college in Baltimore at the time of the Renoir’s reported theft
One of Fouquet’s former tenants recently told The Post that she had described the painting to him as an “heirloom” that “can never leave the family.”