By CHRISTINE MILLER FORD
For The State Journal
HARPERS FERRY — Did M.M. "Martha" Fuqua truly find a gold-framed 5 1/2-by-9-inch painting by French master Pierre-Auguste Renoir in a $7 box of odds and ends at the Harpers Ferry Flea Market off U.S. 340?
A two-day trial centered on that question — and to determine the rightful owner of the painting — is set to begin Jan. 15 in Alexandria, Va.
It's a story that began making international headlines in late 2012 when Fuqua, then known only as "Renoir Girl," gave media interviews ahead of an auction of "On the Shore of the Seine," with experts predicting the work might fetch $100,000.
But days before the planned sale, a Washington Post reporter uncovered a bombshell: The 1879 work belonged to the Baltimore Museum of Art and had been reported stolen in 1951.
The Potomack Co. in Alexandria cancelled the auction and turned "On the Shore of the Seine," a serene scene captured on a linen napkin, over to the FBI.
The trial comes as Fuqua seeks to get the painting back, saying in court papers that she is its "innocent owner" as defined by federal law. In her court filing, Fuqua says she has only a layperson's understanding of art and couldn't have been expected to understand the painting she unwittingly bought was a real Renoir and therefore subject to possible forfeiture.
Others question Fuqua's depiction of herself as an innocent in the art world. Her mother, Marcia M. Fuqua, earned a fine arts degree from Baltimore's Goucher College in 1952. She also had a master's degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art, also in Baltimore.
The senior Fuqua, who died Sept. 9 at age 85, ran an art studio in Northern Virginia for decades. Her specialties included reproducing works made famous by Renoir and other artists.
From the start, Martha Fuqua's "flea market Renoir" story seemed to some as too good to be true — more like a plot for a movie than real life. When news of the "lost" Renoir first came out, Martha Fuqua, then known only as "Renoir Girl," had refused to tell reporters her real name or to disclose much about her biography, saying she was well-known in her Northern Virginia community and didn't relish additional attention. In interviews, she said she'd happened upon the flea market as a random stop on a drive through West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle countryside back in 2009. She explained she'd sought the box lot for its Paul Bunyan figurine and folk-art cow and hadn't suspected the painting might be real.
She'd stowed the painting in a shed and was planning to take it apart for the ornate gold frame when, at her mother's urging, she decided to get an expert to take a look. The potential Renoir windfall came at an ideal time for Fuqua, now 51. She'd fallen into financial straits after losing her job as a public schoolteacher in D.C. She'd filed for bankruptcy and trained for a new career — as a blackjack dealer at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races — before becoming a driving instructor. No one's quite sure why the painting's ties to the Baltimore Museum of Art didn't emerge initially.
Before putting the painting up for sale, Potomack had conducted its customary background review, contacting Bernheim-Jeune, the Paris art gallery that keeps a detailed log of the ownership histories of Renoir's works, as well as the Art Loss Register, the private worldwide database of stolen and lost art that's based in London. The Paris gallery confirmed that the painting was the real thing — the gallery had sold the piece in 1926 to an American buyer, Herbert L. May — and the piece didn't show up on the Art Loss Register as stolen.
But a connection between May and the Baltimore museum struck Washington Post reporter Ian Shapira as noteworthy. May had been married to Baltimore-born Saidie Adler May, who donated several Renoirs and more than 1,000 items total to the museum in her hometown before she died in 1951.
The week of the Sept. 29 auction, Shapira found documents in the Baltimore museum's library showing that Saidie May had in fact lent "On the Shore of the Seine" to the museum in the 1930s. With that news, the museum uncovered internal records that showed staff had reported the Renoir's theft to Baltimore police in mid-November 1951.
Now a federal judge will determine whether Fuqua should have the painting returned to her or if it belongs to the Baltimore museum. Representatives from the insurance company that reimbursed the museum for the long-ago theft have said the painting should go back to the museum.
Fuqua's only sibling — 50-year-old Matt Fuqua — wants the museum to have the Renoir, too. He's among those whose statements have called into question Martha Fuqua's chain of events.
"I told (my sister) to give the painting back, and that ‘You're going to get in a lot of trouble,'" he said in a November interview with the Post.
He told the Post that his girlfriend, real estate agent Jamie Lynne Romantic, had come across the Renoir in late 2011 as she cleaned out his mother's Fairfax studio. Romantic says her boyfriend's mother told her the painting was "priceless," an authentic Renoir and that soon after Martha Fuqua took possession of the painting.
Other witnesses told the Post they had seen "On the Shore of the Seine" on display in Marcia Fuqua's Fairfax home as far back as the 1980s.