Insurance Law

Art Mystery: Who Owns the Tiny Renoir Purchased for $7 at Flea Market?

A small Renoir painting that was purchased in a “$7 box of junk” at a West Virginia flea market is at the center of a brewing ownership dispute now that evidence has surfaced that the work was stolen.

The painting, which was set for an auction since cancelled because of the controversy, has been traced to a collection that belonged to Baltimore resident Saidie May.

But how it got from her collection to a flea market is a mystery. And who owns it now is in dispute, according to a story tracing its history by the Washington Post.

In a box of documents regarding Saidie May’s collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Post discovered during a visit this month that there is record showing the collector lent the painting to the museum in 1937. The news came as a surprise to museum officials, who already were sure the piece was never at their museum.

But now that the museum has placed the work, known as “Paysage Bord du Seine,” an investigation has been launched into its possible theft in 1951, shortly after May died.

The Post says an ownership showdown is now brewing between the museum, the company that insured the painted and paid a $2,500 claim, the auction house initially planning to sell it, and the woman who unwittingly purchased the tiny landscape at a flea market.

Depending on how the insurance policy was written, the owner may be the insurer who paid the claim.

Christopher A. Marinello, general counsel of the London-based Art Loss Register, tells the Post that in the mid-20th Century, most insurers had policies that stipulated they would be entitled to stolen art later recovered.

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