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Renoir bought at a flea market for $7 must go back to museum, judge says

From Lindy Royce-Bartlett, CNN
updated 3:57 PM EST, Fri January 10, 2014
Italy's Culture Ministry unveils two paintings by the French artists Paul Gauguin and Pierre Bonnard on Tuesday, April 2. The paintings, <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/02/world/europe/italy-paintings-recovered/index.html'>worth millions of euros</a>, were stolen from a family house in London in 1970, abandoned on a train and then later sold at a lost-property auction, where a factory worker paid 45,000 Italian lire for them -- roughly equivalent to 22 euros ($30). Italy's Culture Ministry unveils two paintings by the French artists Paul Gauguin and Pierre Bonnard on Tuesday, April 2. The paintings, worth millions of euros, were stolen from a family house in London in 1970, abandoned on a train and then later sold at a lost-property auction, where a factory worker paid 45,000 Italian lire for them -- roughly equivalent to 22 euros ($30).
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Renoir painted "Paysage Bords De Seine" in 1879
  • A Paris gallery bought the painting, and a collector later purchased it
  • The painting was loaned to the Baltimore Museum of Art, which reported it stolen in 1951
  • In 2010, a woman bought it at a flea market for $7; it's valued between $75,000 and $100,000

(CNN) -- A Renoir painting finished in the 1800s, loaned to a museum, reported stolen in 1951, then bought at a flea market in 2010 has to be returned to the museum, a judge ruled Friday.

The story -- and the painting -- date back to 1879, when impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted "Paysage Bords De Seine," or "Landscape on the Banks of the Seine," which was believed to be for his mistress.

It was later purchased by the Paris art gallery Bernheim-Jeune. Then, in 1926, Herbert L. May, a Renoir collector, bought it from the Paris gallery. In 1937, May's ex-wife, Saidie May, loaned the painting to the Baltimore Museum of Art, which reported it stolen in 1951.

Fast-forward nearly 60 years to a flea market in West Virginia, where a Virginia woman was attracted to a nondescript box holding the painting, along with items like a Paul Bunyan doll and a plastic cow. She paid $7 for the box.

The woman took the painting to the Potomack Company, an Auction House in Alexandria, Virginia, to ask about its value.

A Potomack Company specialist thought it might be an original, and further investigation by the National Gallery of Art in Washington and confirmation by a Renoir expert confirmed the hunch. The painting is valued between $75,000 and $100,000.

The whereabouts of the painting during the six decades it was missing remain unknown.

"Life has so many twists and turns. It has friendships and deaths and divorces and all kinds of chaos, moving, you know changing of occupation," Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, told CNN in 2012. "It's very hard to speculate what of those circumstances would cause the painting to change hands."

The Virginia woman, who had requested to be anonymous, felt the painting was rightfully hers.

However, the Baltimore Museum of Art wanted the 5½-by-9-inch Renoir returned.

So the FBI took possession of the painting until the rightful owner could be determined.

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema in Alexandria decided that the painting must be returned to the Baltimore Museum of Art.

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