A Virginia woman bought a box of junk for seven dollars at a local flea market. When she got home she found a small painting in the box, a nicely framed landscape. The painting didn’t interest her but she felt the frame had value. A gold tag fixed to the frame identified the artist. She didn’t recognize the name: Renoir.
The woman’s mother stopped her from ripping the painting from the frame and convinced her to have it appraised. Experts at an auction house identified the canvas as a modest but authentic Pierre-Auguste Renoir and suggested an opening bid in the neighborhood of a hundred thousand dollars. Then the FBI got involved.
Renoir is extremely famous and his paintings can fetch millions of dollars. This painting is not a masterpiece (as it’s been described by the media) but the unfortunate truth in art collecting is this: a bad painting by a famous artist is worth much more than a masterpiece by an unknown. As a genuine Renoir, this picture is immensely collectible and had to come from somewhere.
Agents for The Baltimore Museum of Art have just come forward to say the tiny canvas was stolen from them in 1951, even though a Washington Post reporter has discovered documents in the museum’s library showing the painting only hung in the museum from 1937 until 1949. The museum has no explanation for this discrepancy, other than to insist the painting was stolen in 1951.
The Baltimore Art Museum has been unable to identify the insurance company that paid out $2,500 for loss of the Renoir, the painting’s value at the time. The insurer is presumed to have gone out of business decades ago.
No photographs exist showing this painting in their collection, but the Museum isin possession of a yellowed index card with a description of the Renoir, enough proof for that defunct insurance company back in 1951. But is it enough proof today? The painting has been seized by the FBI’s Stolen Art division, which will assume custody of the painting until a court determines ownership.
So you be the judge. If the decision were yours, who should be awarded this $100,000 painting?