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Here are the makings of a great mystery: A stolen artwork from a prominent museum, the FBI, a beautiful woman and an intrepid reporter. As NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, this is not fiction. It's the tale of how a Renoir painting has safely returned home to Baltimore.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: For a while, it was known as the Renoir found at a flea market.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORTS)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We told you about a woman who paid $7...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: A Baltimore woman, who wants to remain anonymous, bought a painting at a West Virginia flea market for $7.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: ...titled On the Shore of the Seine by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, believed to have been...

BLAIR: The woman took the painting to an auction house. They concluded that it was, indeed, a Renoir that had been purchased in Paris in 1925 by American art collectors Herbert and Saidie May. In a press release, the auction house said it could sell for up to $100,000.

The flea market story intrigued Washington Post reporter Ian Shapira. He knew that Saidie May was a major donor to the Baltimore Museum of Art, but when he called the BMA, they told him they had no record of it. Shapira went to the museum to look through May's papers anyway.

IAN SHAPIRA: I found some documents showing that the museum had actually owned this painting and then the museum had discovered documents on its own showing that its staff back in the 1950s had reported the painting stolen.

BLAIR: Stolen, possibly in the middle of the night, in November of 1951. Once the Baltimore Museum of Art confirmed the Renoir belonged to them, they immediately contacted the auction house. The auction house contacted the FBI. The FBI seized the painting. But that's not all reporter Ian Shapira discovered. His first clue something was amiss in the flea market story was a phone chat he had with the woman's brother.

SHAPIRA: He said something along the lines of, oh, yeah, that painting had been in my mother's house for years.

BLAIR: Turns out, the mother was an artist.

SHAPIRA: Her mother was a painter herself who went to art college in Baltimore at the time of the painting's theft.

BLAIR: Marcia Fouquet was a beautiful woman.

SHAPIRA: Who had a certain charm over men.

BLAIR: She lived in a house in Fairfax, Virginia, where she rented out rooms. Ian Shapira tracked down some of her former tenants.

SHAPIRA: Many of them told me in interviews that they remembered seeing this Renoir hanging in her house for decades.

BLAIR: But Shapira says, as far as he can tell, Fouquet never told anyone how she got it. She died at age 85 last September. The case ended up in court, with the daughter still claiming she bought the painting at a flea market so it belonged to her, and the Baltimore Museum of Art showing evidence of ownership of the stolen Renoir. The judge ruled in the museum's favor and after more than 60 years, the Renoir was returned.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Unintelligible) there it is.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: There it is.

BLAIR: On the Shore of the Seine is tiny but bursting with color. The story goes that Renoir painted it around 1879 on a linen napkin for his lover. With so much international interest, the painting is getting quite a homecoming.

DOREEN BOLGER: The painting became sort of a prodigal child.

BLAIR: Doreen Bolger is director of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

BOLGER: No matter how many children you have - and we have 90,000 in this institution - you feel for the one that is lost. And so, to be able to have it come home is just incredibly meaningful for us.

BLAIR: The exhibition The Renoir Returns opens to the public on Sunday. The mystery of who stole the painting in 1951 remains unsolved. As for Marcia Fouquet's daughter, she says she will not appeal the judge's ruling.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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