The Pierre-Auguste Renoir painting. (AFP/GETTY IMAGES/THE POTOMACK…)
She called herself “Renoir Girl,” refusing to reveal her identity and offering few details about her biography. She lived in Northern Virginia, once taught in Washington area schools and was well-known in her community.
What made her irresistible to reporters wasn’t who she was, but what she said she’d found: A bona-fide painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir in a $7 box of trinkets purchased at a West Virginia flea market.
The story generated worldwide attention and, for a time, promised to produce a six-figure windfall at auction for its accidental owner. But late last year, the FBI seized the painting, called “On the Shore of the Seine,” after the Baltimore Museum of Art learned it had been stolen in 1951.
Now, to retain ownership of the painting, Renoir Girl has been forced to unmask herself in court papers, as a federal judge in Alexandria determines who should get the painting.
Renoir Girl’s true name: Marcia “Martha” Fuqua. A former phys ed teacher, she runs a driving school out of her Lovettsville home in rural Loudoun County. She is no stranger to legal drama — or to the art world.
“I am a very private person,” she told The Washington Post in September, when she was still pseudonymous. “I am one of those people that believes that things happen for a reason,” including stumbling on a long-missing Renoir. “It’s all very coincidental.”
Shortly after “On the Shore of the Seine” had been seized, Fuqua, 51, wrote a letter to the FBI, pleading that her flea-market find be returned. Her chief argument: The government should recognize her as the painting’s “innocent owner” as defined by federal law. She had no clue, she said, that the piece — for sale in a box with a plastic cow and a Paul Bunyan doll — was a real Renoir. She had no reason to think the painting could have been stolen art and subject to FBI forfeiture.
“I have a layperson’s understanding of art,” she wrote to investigators in December. “I am not an art dealer or broker, art historian or art collector, and have no special education, training or experience which would give me expertise in the field of fine art or in particular, in the identification of authentic French Impressionistic works.”
But Fuqua, who declined to be interviewed for this story, grew up with a mother steeped in fine arts. Her mother — who goes by the professional name Marcia Fouquet in homage to a French ancestor — is a painter who specialized in reproducing the pieces of several famous artists, including Renoir, according to an online biography and people who used to work at her art studio.
Fouquet, 84, has artistic roots in Baltimore. She graduated from Goucher College with a fine arts degree in 1952 and earned a master’s degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1957. In her thesis, she briefly analyzes a Renoir portrait.
For at least two decades, Fouquet ran an art studio for children and adults at her home in Fairfax County. The Great Falls Art Center offered classes in drawing, painting, pottery, sculpture and art history. Approached there, Fouquet declined to be interviewed.
But Thomas Cranmer, a Fairfax painter and retired financial consultant, said Fouquet’s daughter helped at the studio for several years.
“Martha rode herd on the kids that were there,” said Cranmer, who was the studio’s vice president, and she was present for her mother’s lessons about art history and painting techniques.
Someone who identified himself as Martha’s brother, Matt Fuqua, said he did know about the Renoir. But he seemed confused about its origins.
“[My mother has] had it for a long time, probably 50 or 60 years,” Matt told The Post in an initial interview. “My girlfriend and her friends were cleaning out my mom’s studio, and my sister stepped in and said, ‘Wow, I want this.’ All I know is my sister didn’t just go buy it at a flea market. . . . My sister kind of snagged it out of my mom’s art studio.”
Matt added that his mother and sister “are keeping me out of the loop. It was supposed to be mine,” he said.
But when a Post reporter called him a second time, he said he had just spoken with his sister and was changing his account. “She said, ‘Matt, you don’t know what you’re talking about. I got it at a flea market,’ ” he said. “I don’t know the facts.”
He demanded that The Post share what it knew about the Renoir. Then he asked not to be quoted and hung up. When a Post reporter called him a third time, Matt said someone else posing as him had answered the interview questions and “has been arrested.”
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