Ownership of 1879 Renoir painting could be determined Friday

BMA request for summary judgment awarding it title could turn on hearsay rules

  • The Renoir painting "Paysage Bords de Seine" is now assessed at $22,000.
The Renoir painting "Paysage Bords de Seine" is… (Courtesy The Potomack Company )
January 09, 2014|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

A court hearing Friday could determine the future of a small Renoir painting that was reported stolen 62 years ago from the Baltimore Museum of Art — while the artwork's clouded past is becoming even more of a mystery.

U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema will hear arguments in her Alexandria, Va., courtroom to resolve an ownership dispute involving the 1879 pink and green landscape known as "Paysage Bords de Seine. The museum and a 51-year-old woman who once called herself "Renoir Girl" are seeking title to the oil painting on a linen napkin.

The 51/2-by-9-inch artwork surfaced in September 2012, when Marcia "Martha" Fuqua put it up for auction. Her account of buying the landscape around 2009 in a box of odds and ends costing $7 — without knowing its value — made headlines and attracted interest worldwide. The day before the landscape was to go under the gavel, the museum announced that the painting had been stolen in 1951. The auction was called off; the FBI seized the Renoir.

Martha Fuqua's brother, Owen Maddox "Matt" Fuqua has publicly cast doubt on his sister's account of buying the artwork at the Harpers Ferry Flea Market. But in a deposition obtained by The Baltimore Sun, Matt Fuqua acknowledged that he'd lied when he said that he had seen the painting in his late mother's home in Great Falls, Va., and that it had been there for "50 or 60 years."

The museum isn't assuming that Brinkema will award the institution title. But BMA Director Doreen Bolger wrote in an email that she's eager "to welcome home the Renoir painting that was stolen from its gallery walls more than 60 years ago. This would be a wonderful way to celebrate the BMA's 100th anniversary and the legacy of donor Saidie May."

At least one knowledgeable observer predicts that the painting will be heading back to Baltimore.

"It would shock me if sufficient evidence didn't get into the trial that the painting was stolen," said Nicholas O'Donnell, a Boston-based attorney and former museum researcher who wrote a legal analysis of the case on the Art Law Report blog (artlawreport.com).

"If there's any way to get that evidence in, the museum will win. The museum's attorney points out very well that even a good-faith purchaser can't get title to stolen goods."

The motion to be argued Friday in Brinkema's courtroom is the museum's request for a summary judgment. In essence, the museum is asking Brinkema to declare that there is no legal basis for awarding the Renoir to Fuqua.

Fuqua's attorney, T. Wayne Biggs, disagrees. He asserts that the documents that the museum has submitted to bolster its case either were not properly authenticated, are inadmissible under the rules of hearsay, or do not prove what the museum thinks they prove.

Those documents include heiress Saidie May's will (she bequeathed her entire art collection to the museum), a police report and a loan receipt kept by the museum. There are documents indicating that the painting was exhibited at least twice, minutes of the museum's board of directors regarding the theft and a $2,500 insurance settlement.

O'Donnell, who worked for the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts from 1997 to 2000, said the outcome of the summary judgment motion will turn on the hearsay rule, which he writes, has "bedeviled generations of law students and lawyers."

As he explained it, hearsay boils down to this: A statement about the truth of the facts in dispute — in this case, about whether the painting was stolen from the museum — cannot be considered unless it is made by a live person on the witness stand.

"If the person making the statement isn't in the courtroom, they can't be judged as to their demeanor, so any statements they make are considered to be unreliable," O'Donnell said. "The jury can't read their body language, can't see whether they're fidgeting or sweating."

Given the pitfalls of hearsay, O'Donnell is curious why neither Biggs nor the museum's attorney, Marla Diaz, interviewed two of the three people who had direct knowledge of the theft in 1951: the museum employee who reported that the Renoir had been stolen and one of the two responding officers. (The other officer died several years ago.)

Both Diaz and Biggs declined to comment on their trial strategies.

In interviews with The Sun, the BMA's former assistant director, James N. Foster Jr., and retired Northern District police officer Lawrence Barry said they did not recall the theft investigation.

"As you suggest, 61 years is quite a stretch," Foster wrote shortly after the auction was canceled. "At 92, I dearly wish my memory were far better. ... I recall that the great Cone Collection had a smallish Renoir, but odd as it may seem, I do not remember the circumstances of its disappearance."

If Brinkema denies the museum's request for a summary judgment, the case will go to trial Jan. 15.

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