ALEXANDRIA, Virginia (Reuters) - 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.
Fuqua bought the unsigned "Paysage Bords de Seine," or "Landscape on the Banks of the Seine," at a Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, flea market in late 2009 because she liked the frame, she said in a court filing. She paid $7 for the painting, along with a box of trinkets.
Although the frame carried the nameplate "Renoir 1841-1919," Fuqua was unaware the 5-1/2-by-9-inch oil painting was genuine and stored it in a garbage bag for 2-1/2 years, she said.
Her mother, an art teacher and painter, urged her in July 2012 to get the painting appraised. Fuqua took it to the Potomack Co, an Alexandria, Virginia, auction house, which verified it was as an authentic Renoir.
After media reports about the painting, the Baltimore Museum of Art said in September 2012 it had been stolen while on loan to it. The Federal Bureau of Investigation then took custody of it.
What happened to the painting in the time after the theft in November 1951 and the time it surfaced at a flea market is not known.
Fuqua had contended that "Paysage Bords de Seine" should be returned to her since she was unaware of it having been stolen or of it being genuine.
The Potomack Co had estimated the painting's value at $75,000 to $100,000, but an appraisal done for the FBI said it was worth about $22,000.
The painting is soiled and "there is a distinct lack of enthusiasm for paintings by Renoir now considered a more old-fashioned taste," appraiser Ted Cooper said, quoting an art market report.
Renoir painted the work for his mistress on a linen napkin, while at a restaurant near the Seine River, Cooper said, quoting museum curatorial notes.
Questions about its ownership also have diminished the painting's value, said the appraisal, which is part of court filings.
"Paysage Bords de Seine" 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 and May lent it, along with other works, to the museum in 1937.
May died in May 1951 and the collection was willed to the museum. As its ownership was going through legal transfer, the painting was stolen while still listed as being on loan.
Reporting by Ian Simpson; editing by Gunna Dickson