$7 Million Renoir Painting, Stolen From Baltimore Museum in 1951 and Bought at West Virginia Flea Market in 2009, Returned to Museum

January 23rd, 2014

This is a case made for property nerds. When teaching adverse possession, a common case in textbooks is O’Keeffe v. Snyder. Long story short, a painting was stolen from Georgia O’Keeffee and passed hands for several decades. Finally, when it was discovered, O’Keeffe sought the return of the painting. The current owner claimed adverse possession because he had owned it for some years. The New Jersey Supreme Court opinion was muddled, and didn’t clearly resolve the obvious issue–how could someone keeping a painting on display in a private home satisfy the open and notorious element?

We have a similar case out of the Eastern District of Virginia: In Re: “Paysage Bords De Seine”, 1879 Unsigned Oil Painting on Linen By Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Reuters has a good summary of the issues.

A napkin-size Renoir painting bought for $7 at a flea market but valued at up to $100,000 must be returned to the museum it was stolen from in 1951, a federal judge ordered on Friday.

The 1879 Impressionist painting “Paysage Bords de Seine,” dashed off for his mistress by Pierre-Auguste Renoir at a riverside restaurant, has been at the center of a legal tug-of-war between Marcia “Martha” Fuqua, a former physical education teacher from Lovettsville, Virginia, and the Baltimore Museum of Art in Maryland.

Judge Leonie Brinkema, in a hearing in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, dismissed Fuqua’s claim of ownership, noting that a property title cannot be transferred if it resulted from a theft.

“The museum has put forth an extensive amount of documentary evidence that the painting was stolen,” Brinkema said, citing a 1951 police report and museum records.

“All the evidence is on the Baltimore museum’s side. You still have no evidence – no evidence – that this wasn’t stolen,” said Brinkema to Fuqua’s attorney before ruling in favor of the museum.

Here is the key analysis from the opinion:

renoir1

renoir2

Alas,┬áthere was no adverse possession argument. I suspect the current owner could not establish who owned it before her to establish the tacking necessary to satisfy Virginia’s adverse possession period.