Lawyer for 'Renoir Girl' casts doubt on BMA's ownership of painting

Court filing raises questions about evidence presented by museum

December 21, 2013|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

The lawyer representing a Virginia woman seeking to retain a tiny landscape painted by the Impressionist master Pierre-Auguste Renoir cast doubt Friday on Baltimore Museum of Art's evidence that it owns the painting.

In documents filed in the U.S. District Court of Eastern Virginia, attorney T. Wayne Biggs raised questions about everything from a 62-year-old police report and a catalog card kept by the museum, to the will filed by the heiress Saidie A. May, who left her entire art collection, which the BMA says includes the Renoir, to the museum.

In some instances, Biggs asserted that the documents haven't been properly authenticated, while at other times, he claimed that they don't prove what the museum thinks they prove. Biggs also argued in the filing that the painting wasn't really owned by May and couldn't have been willed to the museum as part of her estate.

Instead, he submitted a receipt from 1925 that identifies the purchaser of "Paysage bord de Seine" as Herbert L. May, the heiress' former husband.

Biggs represents Marcia "Martha" Fuqua, of Lovettsville, Va., who said she bought the painting at a flea market in 2009 without knowing its value.

"Fuqua would dispute that the evidence demonstrates that Saidie May had actual ownership of the painting herself," Biggs wrote in court documents.

"Insofar as the only evidence of ownership of the painting (prior to Ms. Fuqua) is this 1925 receipt and insofar as there is no evidence that Herbert May gifted the painting to Saidie May, Fuqua would contend that Ms. May's actual ownership of the painting is in dispute," Biggs wrote.

Moreover, Biggs contended that May's will doesn't refer to the painting by name, but simply as a landscape, so it's impossible to know to which artwork it was referring.

The court documents represent the most recent salvo in an ownership dispute over the 1879 oil that Renoir is rumored to have painted for his mistress on a linen napkin.

Earlier this month, the BMA's attorney, Marla Diaz, argued that the case for the museum's right to own the painting is so clear-cut that a trial is unnecessary and asked U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema to decide in the museum's favor.

But Biggs claimed that the exhibits presented by Diaz don't meet the legal standards required to uphold a summary judgment ruling.

In court documents, he pointed out that the museum didn't even know the painting had ever been physically inside the building just off North Charles Street until a loan receipt was discovered, not by a museum staff member, but by an outsider. When a reference to the painting was finally located by museum director Doreen Bolger, it was found in the wrong place, in a file called "returned loans."

Bolger testified the card probably had been misfiled. But the most logical explanation, Biggs said, may be the simplest. "One can infer that the painting was found in 'returned loans' because the painting was returned to Saidie May or her estate or heirs at some point," he wrote in the court filing.

Diaz declined to comment; her response to Biggs' argument is due on Dec. 31. Museum spokeswoman Anne Mannix Brown also declined to comment.

Biggs also argued in that the roughly 30-word police report filed on Nov. 17, 1951, should be set aside because it doesn't include the officers' firsthand knowledge of the theft, but only what they were told by a former museum staff member.

"This police report simply recited the statements made by a witness," Biggs wrote.

The 30-page motion and 48 pages of exhibits contain a reference that addresses whether Fuqua bought the painting at a flea market, as she has stated.

An exhibit, a court document originally filed by the BMA, lists Jamie Romantic, of Great Falls, Va., as having "knowledge of Fuqua family history regarding painting and that it purportedly was given to Marcia Fouquet 50 years ago."

Fuqua's mother, who used the professional name "Marcia Fouquet," was an artist and teacher who attempted unsuccessfully to show some of her own paintings in the Baltimore museum, according to a deposition given by Bolger.

Oral arguments in the case will be heard Jan. 10.

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