Renoir painting

The Renoir painting "Paysage Bords de Seine" is now assessed at $22,000. (Courtesy The Potomack Company / July 30, 2012)

A federal court in Virginia was asked Friday to determine the proper ownership of a miniature landscape painted by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and allegedly purchased for $7 in a box of odds and ends in a rural flea market.

The complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in Alexandria is essentially the first step in determining where the 1879 "Paysage Bords de Seine" will end up.

Such a document is frequently filed by a third party — in this case, the U.S. government — that is holding property whose ownership is in dispute. The complaint is asking U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema to decide whether the small landscape, painted on a linen napkin by the French Impressionist master, belongs to one of six potential claimants.

Those seeking to acquire the painting include the Baltimore Museum of Art, from which "Paysage Bords de Seine" was stolen in November 1951; the Fireman's Fund Insurance Co., which paid out a $2,500 claim on the theft; and Marcia M. Fuqua, 51, of Lovettsville, Va., who said she picked up the unsigned painting in 2009 without knowing its true value.

Other parties include the Potomack Co., which signed a contract to auction off the artwork before learning that it had been stolen; the heirs of Herbert L. May, who purchased the painting in the mid-1920s during a trip to France; and Amalie Adler Ascher, 85, of Towson, the great-niece of philanthropist Saidie L. May, who was divorced from May and bequeathed the painting to the Baltimore museum upon her death in 1951.

Ascher, however, said Friday that she was not interested in pursuing ownership.

"I only got the things that the museum didn't want, and they want this painting," she says. "As far as I'm concerned, it's a closed chapter."

Fuqua, who had previously been identified only as "Renoir Girl," could not be reached Friday afternoon, but her attorney, Justin L. Watson, declined to comment while litigation is pending.

For her part, Baltimore Museum of Art director Doreen Bolger is pleased that the matter seems to be moving toward a final determination of ownership.

"This is a fascinating and riveting story, but it's for the courts to decide," Bolger says. "I'm sure that, like me, everyone is looking forward to having this resolved."

It's entirely possible, however, that answers won't come quickly. Supporting documents filed with the claim indicate that the ownership question might be even murkier than was previously believed.

Since Fireman's Fund paid out a $2,500 claim to the Baltimore museum on March 13, 1952, it could be argued that the Missouri-based insurance giant is the legal owner of "Paysage Bords de Seine."

But because insurance companies aren't in the business of owning works of art, most policies issued to museums include a provision for the recovery of stolen paintings, sculptures and ceramics. These clauses generally stipulate the price that the most recent owner — the Baltimore Museum — can pay an insurer if a stolen artwork is subsequently uncovered.

Unfortunately, those 61-year-old records can't be located. The insurance company has records of 27 policies that it issued to the Baltimore Museum of Art, but none dating to earlier than 1971.

"A copy of the museum's insurance policy cannot be found," the complaint says, "and it is unknown if a provision for the recovery of stolen art was included in said policy."

Adding to the intrigue is that the Renoir was recently appraised as having a fair-market value of just $22,000, or far less than the $75,000 to $100,000 that auction house owners initially estimated the artwork would fetch.

In his appraisal dated Nov. 12, 2012, Ted Cooper, director of Washington's Adams Davidson Galleries, noted that the painting, just 51/2 inches tall and 9 inches wide, "appears soiled and in need of cleaning."

His examination lends credence to a story that the view of the river Seine was dashed off on the spot by the artist for his mistress.

"The quick and loose brush strokes painted without definition or resolution give weight to this theory," he says. "Artists often produced these 'souvenirs' of a specific time and place with ready materials at hand."

But Cooper also quotes art expert Michel Strauss as saying that "there is a distinct lack of enthusiasm for paintings by Renoir, now considered a more old-fashioned taste."