Saidie May loan record. (/ )
The lore of the landscape was as irresistible to its owner as its beautiful brush strokes: Renoir had painted it, Baltimore collector Saidie May said, for his mistress on a linen napkin at a Paris restaurant along the Seine.
So how did the small painting wind up in a $7 box of junk at a West Virginia flea market more than eight decades after May’s ex-husband, Herbert L. May, purchased “On the Shore of the Seine” from a Paris gallery in 1926?
The mystery, which generated headlines this month when an Alexandria auction house announced that it would sell what it believes is that Renoir, became clearer this week when a Washington Post reporter entered the library at the Baltimore Museum of Art. In a box full of Saidie May’s letters and artwork receipts lay one major clue: records showing that she had lent the painting to the museum in 1937. The discovery startled museum officials, who had already said the flea-market Renoir never entered their institution.
But armed with the loan registration number, museum officials dug up in their collection records an even-more-astounding clue about the Renoir’s journey. An old museum loan registration document revealed that the tiny landscape, measuring 51/2 by 9 inches, was stolen Nov. 17, 1951, from the BMA — shortly after May’s death.
Now the painting’s highly anticipated auction by the Potomack Company has been canceled. The FBI is investigating, and museum officials are trying to learn more about the painting’s theft. They couldn’t explain why it does not appear on a worldwide registry of stolen and lost art.
“Obviously, we take our responsibility for our collections and the things entrusted to us very seriously. We have to do more research and get to the bottom of the real story, and we’re still in the midst of that process,” BMA Director Doreen Bolger said. “We have a lot of written and printed records, and they are filed in many areas of the museum.”
The new details could trigger a legal showdown over the painting’s ownership among several players: the historic Baltimore museum; the company that insured the painting and paid a $2,500 claim for the stolen artwork; the six-year-old auction house; and the Virginia woman who unwittingly purchased the Renoir at the Harpers Ferry Flea Market.
Bolger was clear about where the painting belongs: in the BMA’s May Collection. “We want the painting back. That painting was associated with her, and she’s one of the most important donors in the museum,” she said. “It was her decision that it would come to us.”
But it’s not as clear-cut to Elizabeth Wainstein, the Potomack Company’s president. Because Herbert L. May is listed as the buyer by the French gallery where the piece was first sold, she’s not certain that Saidie May technically owned it, said Wainstein, who wants more proof that the Renoir was pilfered.
“There is a strong indication, but we want to see a police report,” she said, adding that the landscape known as “Paysage Bords de Seine” will remain at her auction house until the matter is settled. “We would not sell the painting until we know the proper owner. We just need to the know the truth.”
The true owner of the painting might be the company that insured the Renoir at the time of its disappearance, said Christopher A. Marinello, executive director and general counsel of the London-based Art Loss Register, the world’s largest private database of stolen and lost art. In the mid-20th century, most art insurers had policies stipulating that they are entitled to stolen artwork that is recovered and for which they’ve paid claims, he said.
“Does the insurance company own the painting? Of course they do,” Marinello said. “When an insurance company [back then] paid out on losses, the title resided with the insurer.”
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.