The story of the Renoir Girl: Stranger than fiction

She referred to herself as the Renoir Girl, a moniker that did much to heighten the media interest in her amazing luck of fortune. She had, so the story went, picked up a genuine painting by the French artist at a flea market for a handful of dollars. It was valued between $75,000 (£46,797) and $100,000 (£62,396) at auction. Miracles do happen.
Only that wasn’t the end to what is now a gripping story that is dramatic, mysterious and full of twists and turns. We now know the identity of the Renoir Girl. Her name is Marcia “Martha” Fuqua, a driving school teacher from the US.
No big revelation so far. However, at the end of last year, the painting Paysage bords de Seine (On the Shore of the Seine) was seized by the FBI, after it emerged that the work may have been stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1951.
Even then, as the Washington Post reported at the time, nothing remained absolute about this: “The new details could trigger a legal showdown over the painting’s ownership among several players: the historic Baltimore museum; the company that insured the painting and paid a $2,500 claim for the stolen artwork; the six-year-old auction house[Potomack Company]; and the Virginia woman who unwittingly purchased the Renoir at the Harpers Ferry Flea Market.”
Roll on half a year or so and the courts are now attempting to settle the details of the story once and for all. The US district judge Leonie Brinkema has, for example, ordered all parties claiming ownership of the work to make their case by the end of April.
While that is welcome, the strangeness of the story does not end there. For one, it has been discovered that Ms Fuqua’s mother is a painter and arts teacher who specialises in creating reproductions of famous master works. Marcia Fouquet as she is known can execute paintings by the likes of Monet, Manet, Picasso, Raphael and Renoir, of course.
Stranger than fiction, her son Owen, told the Washington Post, that the Renoir painting had, in fact, been in the family for at least half a century. A surprising disclosure, the truth was further muddied when he retracted his statement. He said someone else had given the interview.
Irrespective of all this, Ms Fuqua stands by her original claim, as a letter to the FBI showed in December 2012: “I have a layperson’s understanding of art. 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 in particular, in the identification of authentic French Impressionistic works.”
She added that at the time of the purchase, she was under no illusion that this was an original Renoir. As such, her attitude towards it was rudimentary – she stored it in a white bin bag. What was more important to her was the frame, suggesting that she would have initially destroyed the actual work.
In the letter to the authorities, she explained that it was only after opening it up, getting her mother’s advice – which is either a very telling or insignificant detail – took it to an auction house where it was verified as genuine. So much so that it was to be sold. It was, she argued, a simple story of serendipity.
Evidence to the contrary, everything that has spilled out of this has not so much diminished her account but brought to attention what seem to be some peculiarities. By the end of the month, that picture should be clearer, though, it is fair to say, that probably won’t be the end of this captivating tale.
Cadogan Tate can ship works of art to your chosen destination anywhere in the world.