WASHINGTON – The highly anticipated auction of a painting believed to be a Renoir and purchased for $7 at a West Virginia flea market has been canceled after evidence surfaced this week that the piece was stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art decades ago.
An FBI investigation is now under way, according to museum director Doreen Bolger, who said museum officials are trying to learn why the painting does not appear on a worldwide registry of stolen and lost art.
The discovery of the theft was made after a Washington Post reporter uncovered documents in the museums library proving that the institution had the painting from 1937 up until at least 1949.
Museum officials then searched their archives, where they found paperwork showing that the Impressionist work, Paysage Bords de Seine, or Landscape on the Banks of the Seine, was pilfered from their building nearly 61 years ago.
The museum had the painting on loan from one of its famous benefactors, Saidie A. May, a Baltimore native who died in May 1951. Museum records show the Renoir was stolen Nov. 17, 1951, just as Mays art collection was shifting to the museum for permanent ownership.
The revelations put on hold Saturdays much-ballyhooed auction of the Renoir at the Potomack Company in Alexandria, Va. Elizabeth Wainstein, Potomacks president, said the Virginia woman who made the flea market find was disappointed.
But she immediately agreed to halt the sale until the FBI determines the rightful ownership of the painting, which the auction house estimated is worth $75,000 to $100,000. It will remain at the auction house until then, Wainstein said.
The Virginia woman, who wants to remain anonymous, bought the painting in 2010 for $7 in a box with a doll and a plastic cow. She said in an interview that she stashed the box away for nearly two years before her mother suggested it might be a real Renoir.