A Renoir painting that made headlines earlier this year when it was unknowingly bought at a flea market for $7 may have been the exact piece that was stolen from a museum six decades ago. An auction house has put its sale on hold.
The auction, which was scheduled to take place Saturday, was canceled Thursday after a Washington Post reporter discovered documents in the Baltimore Museum of Art's library showing that the painting in question was on loan there from 1937 until 1951, when it was stolen.
The Impressionist painting was purchased two years ago at a West Virginia flea market before the buyer, a Virginia woman, took it to auction house, The Potomack Co., in July to be examined, according to the Associated Press. Experts at the auction house confirmed it was a painting by the French master Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The frame of the painting reportedly includes a "Renoir" plaque.
The piece, whose title translates as "Landscape on the Banks of the Seine," was expected to auction for $75,000 or more.
"Potomack is relieved this came to light in a timely manner as we do not want to sell any item without clear title," Elizabeth Wainstein, the owner of the Alexandria, Va.-based auction house, said in a statement obtained by AP.
FBI officials have been notified of the theft and are investigating the situation in which Potomack and museum officials are cooperating.
Documents discovered by Washington Post in the museum's library indicated that the painting was part of the collection of Saidie May, a major donor to the BMA. It was reported stolen on Nov. 17, 1951, according to the documents obtained by AP. Despite the theft, 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 when the painting had not yet been officially accepted into the museum’s collection, which is why museum officials did not initially realize it had been there, BMA director Doreen Bolger, told reporters.
We were caught by surprise," Bolger said Thursday.
Bolger said she would be happy to show the painting again if it is ultimately returned to the museum.
"As this unfolds, we'll find out more about the ownership of the painting," she said. "If the painting is ours, we would be pleased to have it on view."