Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Who  owned  the  stolen  painting?


Every once in a while we read about someone who buys an object (painting, rare book or statue) from a flea market for very little money and it turns out that the item purchased is a very expensive item worth many thousands of dollars.  As we all know, many things can be found at flea markets. Some of them are great and others not so great. I’m going to tell my readers an interesting story of such an event and where the purchased painting finally ended up.                                                                                                                               

 Marcia “Martha” Fuqua, a former school teacher, claimed she bought the valuable work of art at a flea market.  The small napkin sized painting from 1879 depicts in vibrancy, the River Seine titled Au Bord de la Seine in spatters of pinks, blues and greens, in the style of the artist,  Renoir. However, it was later rumored that Marcia actually took the painting from her mother, who is a painter and graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art. In the past, her mother specialized in reproducing works by many well-known artists, including the famous painter, Renoir.                                                              

 Marcia’s brother told The Washington Post that his sister, Marcia found the painting in their mother’s studio well before his sister supposedly bought it in 2009. Family friends also claim to have seen the work of art in her mother’s home which if true, contradicts Marcia’s original story that she bought it at a flea market. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the particular painting in dispute is an original and not a copy painted by Marcia’s mother. This makes me wonder how the original painting was seen in the mother’s studio. Was it the original painting these other people saw or was it a copy the mother had painted?  As you can see, the plot thickens.                                            

 The painting was originally bequeathed to the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) by Saidie May, a well-known patron of the museum. It was on loan at the BMA from 1937 until 1951 and then it was reported stolen on November 17, 1951, notwithstanding that there is no known police report and the painting does not appear on a worldwide registry of stolen art. The reported theft occurred shortly after May’s death, and the painting had not yet been formally accepted into the museum’s collection—which is why the museum officials did not initially realize it had been there prior to its theft.                                                

According to Marcia, the miniature landscape was part of a box of odds and ends in a rural flea market that was purchased by her in 2009 without her allegedly knowing the value of the unsigned artwork. Since then, its ownership had been in question.                                                                                                        

Marcia brought the painting to an auction company and hoped to fetch at least $75,000, but the auction was canceled after the museum came forward with long-forgotten records showing the painting had been stolen from them in 1951. This raises an interesting question. If she didn’t know that it was an original and was instead simply a cheap copy, why did she put it up for auction? Paying a mere $7 for a box of useless objects and because (as she claimed) she was simply a layperson when it came to paintings and art work, why did she think it would be worthwhile to take it to an auction house?  Could it be because the painting was held in a frame with a “RENOIR” panel attached? Oh, my goodness. The plot is really thickening. In any case, in September 2012, when it was put up for auction, after allegedly being bought by Marcia at a flea market for $7, the mini- masterpiece then became the centre of a legal battle between Marcia and the BMA. But the day before the painting was to be sold, the Baltimore Museum of Art produced documents indicating that the work had been stolen from what was then known as the Polk Gallery after the museum closed at 6 p.m. Nov. 16, 1951, and before 1 p.m. the following day.
The auction house selling the work pulled the painting from their sale and the painting was then locked in FBI custody in Manassas, Virginia for over 15 months waiting for the decision of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.
Marcia filed legal papers in the federal court in Alexandria to retain ownership of the painting, stating she is the painting’s “innocent owner,” with “a layperson’s understanding of art” and that she had no idea that the painting that she found in a box, along with a plastic cow, a Paul Bunyan doll, moth- bitten jumpers and cracked crockery was an original Renoir that had actually been stolen from the museum. The reason why she filed those papers in court was because the BMA had learned that she had the painting in her possession that had previously been stolen from the museum and they wanted it back. When the matter came before Judge Leonie M. Brinkema to determine who was the rightful owner of the painting, the BMA presented as evidence a letter written by the then-56-year-old May which was dated October 14, 1935. It was key to the case because it indicated that the heiress owned the tiny painting (framed, and is about the size of a piece of notebook paper) and planned to lend it to her hometown museum. May later bequeathed her art collection, including the Renoir painting to the museum, according to the letter. May's missive, replete with underlinings and multiple exclamation points, was written to Roland McKinney, who at the time was the museum's director. It isn't until the very bottom of the third page that May got to the matter that has attracted interest throughout the art world for the past 15 months. She wrote;  “The Modern Art Museum will be sending you very soon some small paintings of mine which I am willing to loan the Museum indefinitely if you insure them!!”  The second painting she listed in her letter was “Au Bord de la Seine” by Renoir next to the price: $1,010. That was the painting in dispute. There was no doubt in the judge’s mind nor is it in my mind that Ms. May actually bequeathed the painting to the Museum.  Marcia’s lawyer thought otherwise.
I practiced law in the courts for many years and I learned this about lawyers. When it appears that their client’s cases are going down the toilet, they will reach as far as they can to retrieve it. Her lawyer, a Mr. Biggs argued that the museum’s claims were inadmissible because the documents were so old that nobody could attest to their accuracy. Give me a break. Does this mean that since the United States Constitution is so old, it cannot be authenticated?  Who hires dunces like Mr. Biggs?  Perhaps Marcia was desperate since he may have been the only lawyer who would take her case. After the judge heard his foolish argument, she said to the lawyer, “All of the evidence is on the Baltimore museum’s side. None of the evidence is on your side.” 
What is interesting is that not only did Marcia not attend the hearing; she didn’t even submit a bill of sale in her documents proving that she bought it at the flea market. By the way, the painting has been reevaluated by an art appraiser who has estimated its value at about $22,000, which is much lower than the auction house believed.  This is because the appraiser said Renoir’s paintings have fallen out of favor with some art collectors who consider them old fashioned.      What is really interesting in a case like this is how did a painting worth $22,000 end up in a flea market? Further, was the painting actually in the possession of Marcia’s mother at one time or another? If so, how did she get anoriginal Renoir painting? The plot is so thick; I dare not try wading through it lest I get forever stuck in it. 
Even if Marcia Fuqua did purchase the painting at a flea market without knowledge of its authorship and/or title, her claim still had to fail as a matter of law because the painting was stolen from the museum. It is well-settled Virginia law that good-faith purchasers of stolen goods are out of luck when the real owners come looking for their stolen items.  Ms. Marcia Fuqua could not have purchased good title to the painting and did not, therefore, have a valid claim to possession and ownership of the painting.
The judge had no other choice but to rule that Marcia’s claim to possession and ownership of the painting was to be dismissed. This is why many of the paintings stolen by the Nazis during World War Two and later ending up in museums, had to be returned by the museums  to the original owners who lost them to the Nazis.
As sure as God made little apples, Mr. Biggs, Marcia’s lawyer was familiar with Virginia law as it relates to being in possession of stolen goods so why did he argue that his client was entitled to keep the stolen painting? There are only two possibilities as I see it. The first being that he is too stupid to understand Virginia law and the second possibility is that he knew he would lose his client’s case but he would still be paid by his client—win or lose. I don’t see a third possibility. My words are harsh but they represent my  honest opinion.      

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