The Art of Deception

A lucky discovery of an art masterpiece creates a tangled web of competing truths and unravels a family.

By David Hodes

"Paysage bords de Seine" by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
“Paysage bords de Seine” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Photo courtesy of The Potomack Company.

It really doesn’t look like much. Painted on a standard 5 ½ x 9-inch linen table napkin is a brightly colored work of art by a world-famous artist and one of the founders of the Impressionist movement, Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Like other artists before and after this great artist, most notably Pablo Picasso, Renoir dashed out this work, “Paysage bords de Seine” (“On the Shores of the Seine”), in maybe an hour or two in 1879 while lunching in a restaurant in Paris. He didn’t even sign it.

Maybe he did it for a few French francs. Maybe he did it to woo a mistress. No one really knows. But 134 years later, the mystery of its creation has become just a sidenote to an increasingly bizarre sideshow of theft, deception and downright lies that has destroyed a family. Sadly, that story continues to this day.

It was, and is, a simple piece that really didn’t show off this brilliant artist’s true abilities, art historians agree. After all, this is a prolific artist who created many sought-after masterpieces, including one of the most expensive in the world: “Bal au Moulin de la Galette” (“Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette”) valued by Sotheby’s at more than $100 million and considered one of the most important pieces of early Impressionist art.

That masterpiece was created just three years before he did that quick sketch over lunch in Paris. But, oh, what a tangled, twisted and complicated life this little café-crafted painting has had, and what a tangled mess it has created for one Northern Virginia resident, her mother, her brother and her brother’s girlfriend.

The first recorded owner of the painting was Herbert May, who got it from a dealer in France in 1925. Herbert’s ex-wife, Saidie, coincidentally born in 1879 and one of the most cherished benefactors to the Baltimore Museum of Art, loaned it to the museum along with three other Renoirs a dozen years later.

The museum put the painting, together with other paintings and sculptures from Saidie May, as part of the Saidie A. May Collection. It was displayed in two public exhibitions: once in March 1950, again in November 1951, in the John Russell Pope Building of the museum.

Then the painting disappeared, stolen sometime between 6 p.m. Friday, Nov. 16 when the museum closed and 1 p.m. Saturday. There was no evidence of forced entry, and no charges filed, according to a Baltimore police report and records at the BMA. The insurance company paid $2,500 for the loss, and the records of the event were quietly stored away at the museum. Saidie May never knew the painting was stolen—she died in May 1951 and, in her will, bequeathed the painting to the museum.

The mystery of the stolen painting remained unsolved, shown on an index card in the dusty records of the museum as being loaned out. Then, a Lovettsville resident, Martha Fuqua, found the little Renoir masterpiece at a Harpers Ferry flea market in West Virginia in 2009. She paid $7 for it, and some other trinkets she said she bought there. At the time, she had no idea it was a valuable masterpiece. She said she just liked the frame. She stored it away.

Then one day, two-and-a-half years later, Fuqua decided to peel away the backing of the painting, remove the painting and reuse the frame. She showed the painting to her mother, Marcia Fouquet. Fouquet (who changed her name to the French pronunciation of Fuqua) was an expert in French Impressionist art and a lifelong art teacher in Fairfax County. She had a master’s degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1957 and a doctorate in Art Education from Johns Hopkins University.

She specialized in reproducing famous master works of art such as Manet, Monet, Raphael, Picasso and Renoir. She recognized the painting as an original Renoir—maybe worth millions. Her daughter, struggling after being laid off from her teaching job and filing for bankruptcy in Fairfax County, immediately had the painting appraised through the Potomack Company, an art auction house in Alexandria in September 2012. Potomack did their due diligence, contacting an international registry of stolen art works. It was not listed there.

The Paris art gallery that originally sold the piece, Bernheim-June, confirmed its authenticity. Fuqua’s flea market story appeared to be true. This was not one of Renoir’s master works, Potomack discovered, and would not fetch millions. But it was worth at least $100,000. Word got out, and Fuqua fed the fire. At first, she teased the press with the tale of her find, dubbing herself “Renoir Girl”. But her story quickly shot across the Internet and news services everywhere. It was a one of those lottery-win kind of things that gets everyone talking, a story of luck and salvation.

It looked like Fuqua had caught just the break she needed, just when she needed it. The $100,000 could help her out of a financial predicament, and maybe assist in financing her newest business enterprise as a driving instructor. Karma had smiled on her. But karma … is a bitch. An enterprising Washington Post reporter following leads about the amazing flea market discovery, Ian Shapira, found a document in the archives at BMA showing that the painting had been there in 1937.

He found the index card in those files indicating it had been loaned out, which accounted for it not being in a registry of stolen art. He alerted surprised museum officials, who found other documents indicating that it had been stolen. And then the alarms sounded. In rapid succession, BMA officials contacted the FBI who immediately seized the painting on October 2, 2012 (they are expected to give it back to the museum in time for a public showing of the painting in late March).

Fuqua was outraged, or at least feigned outrage—it’s hard to tell. In any case, she decided that the painting was hers and that she would fight for ownership in the court. In court documents, she told her story: She liked the gilded wooden frame with “Renoir” stamped on a brass plaque, purchased the painting at the flea market in late 2009 along with several other items, paid cash and didn’t get a receipt, then stored it at various places in her house in a white garbage bag.

In July 2012, intending to throw away the painting and reuse the frame, she removed the backing. Something caught her eye, because she says she then showed it to her mother who told her it could be a real Renoir and recommended she get it appraised. Two months later, she took it to Potomack for auction. “I have a layperson’s understanding of art,” she wrote in a sworn statement to the FBI after they seized the painting. “I am not an art dealer or broker, art historian or art collector, and have no special education, training or experience which would give me expertise in the field of fine art or the identification of authentic French Impressionist work.”

She went on to explain that she had no reason to believe that a painting, offered for sale among a box of trinkets at a flea market, would be an authentic Renoir. And since the painting was not signed, she wrote, she did not believe that it was authentic. Look at how she stored it, she points out, in a plastic bag in several areas of her house. If she knew this was a masterpiece, would she have stored it so carelessly?

She claims therefore that she is an “innocent owner” and the “bona fide purchaser for value” of the painting. That was her defense, which she stands by to this day (both Martha Fuqua and her attorneys did not respond to inquiries about this case).
Clearly, she seemed to be saying, this is case of finders-keepers. But hold on— there is another version of the truth.

In the house of her mother, according to court documents, witnesses say that they saw the painting hanging on a wall for years, giving credence to the theory that somehow Mrs. Fouquet had acquired it long ago. One of those witnesses was her son, Martha’s brother, Matt Fuqua. In the first sign of trouble brewing in the family, he changed his story. He told reporter Shapira that he didn’t see it there. But later, in a deposition on the case, he said that he had lied to protect his sister. He did see the Renoir in his mother’s house. His sister was the liar.

Matt’s girlfriend, Jamie Lynn Romantic, who describes herself as a close confident to Mrs. Fouquet, says she actually found the painting when she was cleaning out the storage unit at the studio apartment she rented behind the main Fouquet house about three years ago. “It was full of about 15-20 years of storage, of paintings, pictures, books,” she says. “I found it and gave it to Mrs. Fouquet and she was thrilled. She said that it was a family heirloom and that it was priceless. That was the beginning of us knowing about it.” That was also when Martha found out about the painting.

Romantic says that after Mrs. Fouquet and Matt found out that Martha was trying to sell the painting, Mrs. Fouquet told them that she told Martha to return it to the museum, “to its rightful owner,” she told Romantic.
Meanwhile, Martha was not giving up after the FBI confiscated what she claimed was her lucky flea market find. Her lawyer, T. Wayne Biggs of Dycio and Biggs in Fairfax, and the attorney for the Baltimore Museum, Marla Diaz, with Whiteford, Taylor and Preston in Falls Church, were getting down to business.

“This looks pretty straight forward,” Judge Leonie Brinkema, U.S. district judge for the Eastern District Court of Virginia, said during an early hearing about the ownership of the painting in December 2013. Diaz concurred. “We just want our painting back,” she said.

It did seem like a slam-dunk. But a good lawyer knows that slam-dunks can backfire. Even to a layman, the Renoir—now plunging in appraised value to $22,000 as a result of the ownership question—looked to clearly be the property of the museum. Fuqua’s credibility was losing ground.

At the next hearing, the last hearing before a jury trial was to be held, Diaz presented compelling evidence from museum records showing that the museum owned the painting, and that it had been stolen. It didn’t matter who said they owned it now or how they found it. It was stolen art and belonged back in the museum. End of story.

Fuqua’s lawyers argued that the old records from the museum and the Baltimore police amounted to hearsay, saying that the documents could only be authenticated by someone with personal knowledge of their creation. Judge Brinkema—a well-respected, no-nonsense judge who presided over the case of 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui—called that assertion “ridiculous” because the age of the documents meant that any firsthand witnesses were likely dead or, if living, would otherwise be unable to recall what happened so long ago.

“In light of such overwhelming evidence of BMA’s lawful possession and the ensuing theft of the painting, and Fuqua’s failure to present a scintilla of evidence to the contrary, there is no genuine issue of material fact for which a trial is needed,” she wrote in her memorandum opinion. Judgment: BMA.

“It was a very basic principal of law that her side was trying to assert, that possession is nine-tenths of the law,” Diaz says. “So Fuqua’s position was that ‘I have possession so therefore the museum has the burden of overcoming the presumption in my favor.’ The museum’s position was that we can overcome that burden because it was stolen from us. You cannot give a title to a thief.”

Was justice served? “I certainly think so,” Diaz says. “I think when you talk about getting a Renoir painting back into a museum where the public can come and see it for free, that is a win every time.”
The museum got their happy ending to the story. But that’s not the case with the Fuqua family. Not by a long shot.

Behind the scenes, the Fuqua family was falling apart with Martha apparently stirring up trouble along the way. Mrs. Fouquet, 85 and suffering from cancer, died in September, setting off a chain of events. Romantic says that Fuqua tried to evict her from Mrs. Fouquet’s studio apartment. She says that Fuqua tried to sue her for unpaid rent even though she was not her landlord and never reneged on her lease. Fuqua allegedly burglarized her apartment and spent four days in jail for it. “She stole my personal belongings,” Romantic says. “She stole my antiques, my antique silverware. I mean, it was just ridiculous.”

Romantic says she doesn’t know why Fuqua did that but suspects it may be retaliatory. “I thought she was just angry with me because I was so close to her mother. And then I found out from Mrs. Fouquet’s best friend that she wanted to leave me something in her will, maybe even the studio apartment. I’m just very sad because their whole family consists of a mother and two kids. And now they are family-less, if that makes sense.”

Now, the family is in court again, with Matt trying to resolve issues about his mother’s estate that is now in his sister’s name. “I am kind of worn out about the whole thing, to be honest with you,” he says. “I am working on trying to get the trust back on my mother’s estate.”

He says that he is just glad the museum got their painting back. “They deserved it. And my mother wanted it to go back to them. The truth comes out in the long run eventually, so …” And what about his sister, Martha? “A lot has changed,” he says. “She won’t talk to anybody. That is just the way it is.”

So who stole the Renoir? One theory offered by Romantic in court documents is that it was stolen by a man named Samuel Philpot. Maybe it was a gift to impress a certain young art student, a beauty queen he knew who was a finalist in the Miss Washington, D.C. beauty pageant named Marcia Fouquet. But to this day, no one really knows.

There may be another chapter to come. The judge didn’t rule on the truthfulness of Martha Fuqua’s story—that wasn’t the case in front of the court. But there are rumors of more charges related to the Renoir being brought against Martha Fuqua that could include taking stolen property across state lines and perjury regarding her sworn statement to the FBI.

The “I found it at a flea market” story is one that law enforcement officers hear a lot from thieves. And the FBI can be persistent when they think they are being duped.  When asked about any additional action on the case, the state’s attorney’s office responded with a standard non-denial denial: “We cannot confirm or deny the existence of any investigation, nor can we comment on any pending investigation,” wrote Fay Brundage, attorney for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, in an email response about the case.

In the meantime, while Martha Fuqua continues to hold on to a story no one believes, the tangled web she’s woven may tighten into an iron cage from which she cannot escape, or unravel completely as the clenched fist at the end of the long arm of the law comes knocking on her door.

 

Weaving the Tangled Web

 

1879

Pierre-August Renoir paints “Paysage bords de Seine” (“On the Shore of the Seine”) on a 5 ½ x 9 inch linen table napkin. Art historians believe that it was painted on the spot by Renoir at a restaurant on the Seine for his mistress as a sort of souvenir.

June 1925

The unsigned painting, acquired by Parisian art collector Bernheim-Jeune, is sold to Herbert May.

May 8, 1937

The painting is loaned to the Baltimore Museum of Art by Baltimore art collector and philanthropist Saidie May, ex-wife of Herbert, along with three other Renoirs and several art objects she owned, as part of the Saidie May Collection.

May 1951

Saidie May dies, and wills the artworks to the museum.

Nov. 17, 1951

The painting is stolen from the John Russell Pope building—now the American Wing—in the museum. There is no evidence of a forced entry, leaving speculation that this may have been an inside job. No charges are filed.

March 13, 1952

Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company pays $2,500 to the Baltimore Museum for their claim on
the theft.

Fall 2009

Late in the year, according to her sworn statement to the FBI, Martha Fuqua said that she found the Renoir at a flea market near Harper’s Ferry, and paid $7 in cash for it and several other items. She stores it in a white garbage bag, moving it to various areas of her house.

2011

Late in the year, Jamie Lynn Romantic, girlfriend of Martha Fuqua’s brother, Matt, found the painting when she was cleaning out a room at Matt’s mother’s studio.

September 2012

Martha decides to take the painting to the Potomack Company, an art appraisal and auction house in Alexandria. They check with the Art Loss Registry, the world’s largest private database of stolen and missing art. It isn’t listed there. Fuqua is told the Renoir is authentic and could be worth $100,000 or more. It’s scheduled to be auctioned off. But before the auction begins, the museum discovers that it was stolen from their Saidie May Collection in 1951.

Oct. 2, 2012

The FBI seizes the painting from The Potomack Company. Martha sues for claim of ownership two months later.

Nov. 12, 2012

Working with the FBI, Ted Cooper, director of the Adams Davidson Galleries, gives the painting a fair market value of $22,000, downgraded from $100,000 because of ownership issues.

March 15, 2013

Fuqua, with attorney T. Wayne Biggs, files a complaint in the U. S. District Court of Eastern District of Virginia in Alexandria requesting the return of the painting from the FBI.

July 17, 2013

An initial pretrial conference is held to consider going forward with the case or settling.

Sept. 9, 2013

Marcia Fouquet, 85, mother of Martha and Matt Fuqua, dies. She makes her daughter Martha executor of her estate.

Oct. 11, 2013

Martha is arrested on burglary charges by Fairfax police for allegedly breaking into the apartment of her brother’s girlfriend Jamie Romantic (which is owned by her mother’s estate) stealing jewelry, antiques and furniture and assaulting her brother. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for March 24. If convicted, she faces up to 20 years in prison.

Nov. 14, 2013

Matt is deposed by lawyers for the case. He tells them that his mother had told his sister to return the painting to the museum. His sister, meanwhile, files two lawsuits to evict her brother and his girlfriend from their mother’s property.

Nov. 21, 2013

The Renoir case goes to final pretrial conference with Baltimore Museum attorney Marla Diaz and Martha Fuqua’s attorney Biggs in front of District Judge Leonie Brinkema. Judge Brinkema sets a date for the case to proceed to trial, stating that “this seems to be a pretty straight-forward case.”

Jan. 10, 2014

Judge Brinkema hears attorneys for both sides argue the merits of the case based on evidence presented by the museum. She rules that the case has no merit to continue to trial. BMA gets the painting.

March 2014

Judge Brinkema hears attorneys for both sides argue the merits of the case based on evidence presented by the museum. She rules that the case has no merit to continue to trial. BMA gets the painting.

 

(April 2014)

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