According to museum records, a Renoir landscape valued at $1,000 was loaned on May 3, 1937, by Saidie May to the Baltimore Museum of Art as part of a group of 37 works.
The loan receipt doesn't state an end date for the loan but specifies that "objects will be returned to the owner only upon the written order of the lender…"
Adler said that her aunt sent most of her artwork to museums after she sold her New York apartment because she didn't keep a permanent home, traveling around the U.S. with the change in seasons.
Saidie May intended from the beginning to bequeath the majority of her collection to the Baltimore Museum of Art, Adler said. But instead of donating all her artworks outright, she made several long-term loans for financial reasons.
"She purposely didn't give them all at once because she could take tax write-offs for the artworks that were on loan," Adler said. "She kept detailed records of what she loaned out each year."
But May's last will and testament, dated April 30, 1947, reads:
"I give and bequeath to the Baltimore Museum of Art … all my objects of art, including paintings, sculptures, textiles, furniture, antiques, antique jewelry, rugs, tapestries, mirrors, lamps, and accessories and bibelots."
That might seem to settle the question — assuming that the Renoir landscape was Saidie May's to give away.
But even if the true owner of the painting in 1951 was the Baltimore Museum of Art, chances are that in 2012 it legally belongs to the insurance company which paid out $2,500 when the landscape was stolen.
Museum officials haven't identified the insurance company involved, saying they are looking into the policy details.
But Radcliffe said that in the middle of the 20th century, Lloyd's of London carried the policies for 80 percent of the artwork that was insured.
"If Lloyd's issued the policy for the Renoir, we'd be authorized to recover it for them," he said.
Most modern insurance policies contain a so-called "buy-back clause." If a stolen artwork is later recovered, a museum can reclaim it by refunding the settlement cost. But, Radcliffe said, such clauses were rare in 1951.
But he said insurance companies frequently are willing to return stolen artworks if the museum can pay all or part of the current market value.
"I think there's a good chance," he said, "that the painting will end up back in Baltimore."
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