Months before she dubbed herself “Renoir Girl” and made news as a woman who had found an Impressionist gem at a flea market, Martha Fuqua took the painting to a Falls Church auction house with a different story.
Fuqua, 51, a driving instructor in Loudoun County, carried the long-missing “On the Shore of the Seine” into Quinn’s Auction Galleries on June 1, according to employees of the family-owned business. She was certain that it had been painted by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and said that she’d obtained it from an estate. She also believed that the small landscape would fetch $1 million at auction.
There was no mention of a West Virginia flea market or a $7 box of junk — the story that eventually catapulted Renoir Girl and her artwork into the headlines.
The new details about Fuqua’s appointment at Quinn’s raise more questions about her at a time when she is fighting in federal court to keep the Renoir, which the FBI seized after it was discovered to have been stolen decades ago from the Baltimore Museum of Art.
“A lot of people come in here and say, ‘I think I have X, Y, Z — can you verify it for me?’ But [Fuqua] was very adamant she had a Renoir,” said the Quinn’s decorative arts specialist who dealt with Fuqua last June and who asked to remain anonymous. “I immediately asked her, ‘Where did you get this from?’ and she said, ‘I got it from an estate.’ A red flag went up. Typically, an estate would know if it had a high-end painting by such an artist.”
Matthew Quinn, whose family owns and runs the auction house, confirmed his employee’s account of the encounter with Fuqua, based on his conversations with the specialist last year. The FBI, which is investigating the theft of the art, also interviewed the Quinn’s specialist.
In a brief telephone interview, Fuqua disputed the auction house’s account but would not discuss many specifics.
“I don’t care what you write,” said Fuqua, who was profiled in The Washington Post this month after her identity was revealed in court papers.
She worked as a physical education teacher, first in Fairfax County and Loudoun and then in the District, before being laid off in 2009. She struggled financially afterward, filing for bankruptcy in Alexandria’s federal court with debts of more than $400,000 and assets of about $312,000.
Fuqua laughed at the description of her encounter with the Quinn’s specialist.
“I don’t know what to tell you about Quinn’s,” she said. “They’re going to say what they want to say.”
Then she hung up.
When Fuqua arrived at Quinn’s for her appointment, the auction house’s specialist quickly brought up the need to verify the Renoir’s authenticity. But Fuqua, accompanied by a middle-aged man, questioned whether that was necessary. (The Quinn’s specialist does not recall if the man introduced himself. In Fuqua’s brief interview with The Post, she said she visited Quinn’s by herself.)
The auction house’s conservationist inspected the painting and believed it could be real. The specialist asked Fuqua if she would leave the painting for a few days so more research could be done.
Fuqua refused to leave the painting and seemed dissatisfied with the specialist’s estimate of what the Renoir might sell for: $20,000 to $40,000.
“She had this sort of fantasy of $1 million,” the employee said.
As the appointment ended, the specialist offered Fuqua a chance to meet with Quinn, the company’s executive vice president. Fuqua agreed, and the specialist wrote an e-mail to Quinn:
“Hi, I met with a woman today who has a potential Renoir. I had [our conservationist] take a look at it, and he’s neither dismissing it nor overly confident,” she wrote. “I went through the discussion of the catalog raisonne, but she would feel more comfortable talking to you about the entire procedure. Would you mind calling her? Or can we discuss this further? Her name is Martha Fuqua.”
Quinn and Fuqua were scheduled to meet June 12. But when the day came, Fuqua didn’t show. The company called her but couldn’t reach her.
Three months passed. Then, in early September, Quinn came across the burst of news stories about an anonymous woman auctioning off a Renoir at the Potomack Co. in Alexandria on Sept. 29.
Initially, Quinn said he was disappointed that his company lost out to a rival.
“I think, as a supervisor, I can be very hard on people when we lose something to a competitor,” Quinn said. “I just wondered, ‘Why did we lose this deal?’ ”
But as he and his staff read the stories more carefully, the details astounded them. She was now telling Potomack and the media that she had gone to a West Virginia flea market in late 2009 and wound up with the Renoir only because it came in a box holding items she prized more: a Paul Bunyan doll and a plastic cow.
She said she bid on the box and won it for $7, then stashed the painting in a shed, her car and her kitchen over the next two years. She took it to an auction house at the urging of her mother, who suspected that it might be real.
“When it came out that Potomack was selling it, and it’s all over ABC News and [other media outlets], my supervisor and I were like, ‘What’s with this $7 flea-market find?’ ” the Quinn’s specialist said. “We spent a lot of time talking about why would she change her story.”
Eventually they, along with the rest of the world, learned that the Renoir had been stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1951.
Days before the Potomack auction, The Post found documents in the BMA’s library showing that one of its biggest donors had lent the Renoir to the museum in the 1930s. Then the BMA discovered more internal records showing that its staff reported the Renoir’s theft to Baltimore police in 1951.
According to the 1951 police report, between Nov. 16 and Nov. 17, “some one stole” the Renoir; there was no evidence of forced entry.
Potomack, which had told reporters and potential bidders that the Renoir could sell for as much as $100,000, canceled the auction and handed the painting over to the FBI.
In October, Quinn traveled to New Jersey for a business dinner and wound up talking with Robert Wittman, the retired founder and former senior investigator of the FBI’s art crimes team.
He told Wittman about his employee’s encounter with Fuqua. Wittman, who had been following the case of the “flea- market Renoir,” was intrigued.
He passed along Quinn’s contact information to the FBI case agent investigating the Renoir theft.
A few weeks later, the agent met with the Quinn’s specialist.
“He wanted to know which date she came in,” the specialist recalled. “And he was interested in the ‘estate’ aspect of her story.”
The FBI declined to comment about its investigation.
Elizabeth Wainstein, the founder and president of the Potomack Co., said Fuqua has never strayed from her flea- market story since she called the auction house on July 17 to make her first appointment.
No one at Potomack pressed Fuqua on which flea market she visited, or which vendor sold it to her. Wainstein said she and her staff were more concerned about whether the piece was real and whether it had been stolen.
That’s why, she said, Potomack contacted Bernheim-Jeune, the Paris art gallery that keeps a compendium detailing the ownership histories of Renoir’s works, and the London-based Art Loss Register, the world’s largest private database of stolen and lost art. The Paris gallery confirmed that the painting was real, and the Art Loss Register reported that it was not on the register’s list of stolen goods.
In an interview with The Post in early September, when she was still using the Renoir Girl pseudonym, Fuqua said that she’d called a New York auction house earlier but that the firm didn’t seem interested. She also mentioned that she’d visited another local auction house but declined to give any details.
“As soon as I walked in,” she said, “there was some teenage girl who said it’s probably not real.”
Now, an Alexandria federal judge is set to decide who gets to keep the Renoir. It may come down to Fuqua or the Baltimore Museum of Art, which was lent the painting in 1937 by one of its largest donors, the late Saidie May.
In court papers, Fuqua argues that the government should recognize her as the painting’s “innocent owner” as defined by federal law.
She claims that she has only a layman’s understanding of art and that she had no clue the painting she unwittingly bought was a real Renoir and subject to possible FBI forfeiture.
But Fuqua’s mother, Marcia Fouquet, 84, ran an art studio for decades at her Fairfax home, where Fuqua helped out for several years.
Her mother, who graduated from Goucher College in Baltimore with a fine arts degree in 1952 and earned a master’s from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1957, specialized in reproducing the works of famous painters, including Renoir.
Although the FBI is still investigating the case, the statute of limitations on the art theft has expired. But other related charges, such as possession and transportation of stolen property, could be filed, according to Robert Goldman, a former federal prosecutor who specialized in art theft.
Fuqua’s attorney, T. Wayne Biggs, would not comment.
The Quinn’s specialist still wonders about the unidentified man who came along with Fuqua. All she can recall was that the man was short. He looked middle-aged. He might have worn a ball cap.
The specialist does remember one thing: During his interview, the FBI agent seemed especially interested in the man as well.