MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Going once, going twice. Stolen? So ends a fascinating art world mystery as reported in today's Washington Post. It begins two years ago when a woman bought a box of junk for $7 at a West Virginia flea market, only to find later that among the junk was a real painting by Renoir, worth an estimated 75 to $100,000.
Post reporter Ian Shapira set out to trace the painting's path from a Paris gallery to that flea market, and he joins me now to walk us through what he found. And Ian, the person who bought this at the flea market in West Virginia, took it to get appraised, right? Discovered it was a Renoir, found it was worth a lot of money and was going to put it up for auction. And they tried to figure out where this painting had come from. What originally did they find out?
IAN SHAPIRA: The originally found out - this woman from Virginia, she's an anonymous woman, she comes to this auction company. They confirm that it's a Renoir, all they know at this time is that the painting was originally purchased by a couple named Herbert L. May and Saidie May and that couple bought it in Paris in 1926.
BLOCK: So you start talking to the descendants of the May family and what do they tell you?
SHAPIRA: I first started with Herbert's side of the family - his grandchildren. They didn't know about the painting at all. Then I checked with Saidie's children and the Baltimore Museum of Art. And they didn't have any records of the painting, they did not know the painting. We ran into a lot of roadblocks because we didn't know why none of the surviving children of this couple knew about a Renoir painting.
BLOCK: So you end up going to the Baltimore Museum of Art because Saidie May had, when she died, left her paintings to the museum, right? And they had no record of it that they could find. Then what happened?
SHAPIRA: So I called up the really kind librarian at the Baltimore Museum of Art. I asked her, I said, could I come on in and look through Saidie May's papers? And so there I was on Tuesday of this past week, and I'm on the microfilm station and there on one of the pages was a list of Renoirs. And lo and behold, there was one more Renoir painting on this list, and it was the painting everybody was looking for.
BLOCK: That had been loaned to them by Saidie May.
SHAPIRA: Yeah, the museum had a painting. So then I take this record to the museum officials. This record had a loan registration number. So then they could then take that document with that number and then go into their loan records. And that is where the museum found a document that was written up in 1951 by museum officials back in the day, that said this Renoir was stolen.
BLOCK: What happens to this painting now? The idea was that the person who bought it at the flea market was going to be putting it up for auction. What happens with it now?
SHAPIRA: Yes. This anonymous Virgina woman, she was days away from getting a huge payday. But this discovery has stopped that at least for now. There are several players that could be claiming this painting - the woman, the auction company, the Baltimore museum might have a claim to it, or very intriguingly, the insurance company at the time. A lot of experts I spoke with told me that at the time, insurance policies like this back in the day, stipulated that if a museum was paid out on an insurance claim, then the insurance company then would own the recovered item.
BLOCK: And now a lot of lawyers are going to be busy for quite some time trying to figure out where the painting ends up.
SHAPIRA: I imagine so. I think that this is going to be a big deal. For the Baltimore Museum this is a point of pride. Saidie May was a huge benefactor to that museum for years. They've got a wing named after her. The May relatives that I spoke with want the painting back at the museum.
BLOCK: Ian Shapira, thanks for talking to us.
SHAPIRA: No problem, any time.
BLOCK: Ian Shapira with the Washington Post. He reported that the Renoir painting found at a flea market and bought for $7 was actually stolen more than 60 years ago.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.