WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Virginia auction house on Thursday canceled the sale of a Renoir painting bought at a flea market for $7 after signs the work was stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art decades ago.
The painting "Paysage Bords de Seine" by Pierre-Auguste Renoir was to have gone under the hammer on Saturday but ownership questions halted the sale, said Lucie Holland, a spokeswoman for Potomack Co, the Alexandria, Virginia, auctioneer.
"The rest of the auction will go on, but the Renoir has been withdrawn," she said.
A Virginia woman bought the signed French Impressionist painting at a West Virginia flea market a year or two ago, hoping the frame would be of some use.
She ignored the work until it turned up again while housecleaning and had it appraised by Potomack in July. The auctioneers verified it as a Renoir and estimated its worth at $75,000 to $100,000.
The Baltimore Museum of Art told Potomack on Wednesday that its records indicated "Paysage Bords de Seine," or "Landscape on the Banks of the Seine," was stolen while on loan to the museum in 1951, the auction house said.
Potomack told the FBI and a federal probe is under way. There is no known police report on the theft.
The Renoir came to the Baltimore museum through one of its leading benefactors, collector Saidie May. Her family bought the painting from the Bernheim-Jeune gallery in Paris in 1926.
The Washington Post found records in the museum's library on Tuesday that showed May had lent the paintings and other works to the museum in 1937, Potomack said.
After the newspaper told it of the findings, the Baltimore museum checked its files and found a loan record showing the Renoir had been stolen on November 17, 1951. What happened to it after the theft is unknown.
Doreen Bolger, the museum director, said the museum's probe into what happened to the painting was in early stages but was centered on May.
She died in May 1951 and the art collection was willed to the museum. As its ownership was going through legal transfer, the painting was stolen while still listed as on loan.
"At this point we just want to make sure that the painting winds up where it belongs and that we provide all the information we can to law enforcement about this issue," Bolger said.
Potomack said the painting had not turned up when it checked London's Art Loss Register, a database of stolen and lost art. It also consulted the FBI's art theft website to confirm it was not listed as stolen.
Editing by Mohammad Zargham