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In re Paysage Bords de Seine

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Alexandria Division

January 14, 2014

In re: " PAYSAGE BORDS DE SEINE," 1879 UNSIGNED OIL PAINTING ON LINEN BY PIERRE-AUGUSTE RENOIR; UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
BALTIMORE MUSEUM OF ART, et al., Claimants

For United States of America, Plaintiff: Karen Ledbetter Taylor, LEAD ATTORNEY, United States Attorney's Office, Alexandria, VA.

For Marcia Fuqua, " Martha", Interested Party, Cross Claimant: Thomas Wayne Biggs, II, Dycio & Biggs, Fairfax, VA.

For Baltimore Museum of Art, Cross Defendant: Marla Jordan Diaz, Whiteford Taylor & Preston LLP, Falls Church, VA.

OPINION

Page 741

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Leonie M. Brinkema, United States District Judge.

Before the Court is claimant Baltimore Museum of Art's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment. For the reasons stated in open court and in this Memorandum Opinion, the motion will be granted, and claimant Marcia Fuqua's Claim to Property and Cross-Claim will be dismissed.

I. BACKGROUND

The subject of this interpleader action is an 1879 unsigned oil painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, entitled " Paysage Bords de Seine" (the " Painting" ). See Compl. ¶ ¶ 4-5. For purposes of this litigation, the first recorded owner of the Painting was Herbert May, who purchased it from a dealer in Paris, France. In 1935, his wife Saidie May wrote a letter to the Baltimore Museum of Art (" BMA" or the " Museum" ) explaining that she owned the Painting and was interested in loaning it to BMA, as she had done with several other works. See Mem. in Supp. of Mot. for Summ. J. (" BMA's Mem." ), Ex. 1-A. Specifically, she wrote that she was willing to loan four Renoir paintings, including the Painting at issue, to BMA indefinitely, provided the Museum would insure them, and indicated the Painting's value to be $1,010. Id.

BMA's agreement to accept the loan is reflected in two inventories. First, a " revised list," dated May 3, 1937, shows " receipt" of paintings " offered as loan[s]" from Saidie May and includes the same four Renoir paintings listed in her 1935 letter. See id. at Ex. 1-B. Second, a December 1940 listing shows that the Painting was part of BMA's Saidie A. May Collection of Modern Art Loans and Gifts and was valued at $1,000. See id. at Ex. 1-D. BMA also gave the Painting an alpha-numeric designation, which it recorded on a catalog card bearing the Painting's English title (" On the Shore of the Seine" ), artist (" Pierre-Auguste Renoir" ), medium (" Oil on linen napkin" ), size (" 5 1/2 [inches] x 9 [inches]" ), and lender (" Saidie A. May" ). See id. at Ex. 1-C. The Painting was displayed in two public exhibitions, first in a March 1950 exhibition entitled " Saidie A. May Collection of Modern Paintings and Sculpture" and again in a November 1951 exhibition entitled " From

Page 742

Ingres to Gauguin." See id. at Ex. 1-E, 1-F.

During the second exhibition the Painting disappeared. BMA reported it as stolen to the City of Baltimore Police Department on November 17, 1951. Id. at Ex. 2. The resulting police report described the Painting as an " Oil on canvas painting, Canvas size 5 1/2 X 9 [inches], painted by Pierre Auguste Renoir, Titled 'On the Shore Of The Seine,' A River scene in pink and blue, weeds in green, in a Gilt frame size 8 X 12 [inches] Val. $2500.00, Insured." Id. Minutes from a BMA Executive Board meeting held on February 4, 1952, show that BMA's " insurance company [had] agreed to pay the Museum $2,500 in compensation for the Renoir painting from the May collection which was stolen from the French show." Id. at Ex. 1-G. A BMA financial ledger likewise shows that on March 4, 1952, Fireman's Fund Insurance Company made a $2,500 " payment of claim" for the " theft of ptg. by Renoir: 'On the Shore of the Seine.'" Id. at Ex. 1-H.

According to claimant Marcia Fuqua (" Fuqua" ), the Painting resurfaced in 2008 or 2009 at a flea market in West Virginia, where she purchased it for $7. See Compl., Ex. C. After learning of its valuable nature, Fuqua contacted the Potomack Company in September 2012 to have the Painting sold at auction. Id. Just days before the scheduled auction, BMA uncovered internal records confirming that it had owned the Painting until 1951, at which time it was stolen from its collection. BMA's Mem., Ex. 1. BMA then contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation (" FBI" ), which obtained a civil seizure warrant under which the Painting was taken into custody. Compl. ¶ 4. The FBI has been holding the Painting in Manassas, Virginia, ever since. Id.

On March 15, 2013, the United States filed this interpleader action, asking the Court to determine to whom the Painting rightfully belongs. See id. ¶ 6. The Complaint identified a number of potential claimants: BMA, Fuqua, Fireman's Fund Insurance Company, the Potomack Company, Amalie Ascher (heir of Saidie May), and the undetermined heirs of Herbert May (as it was unknown how or if Saidie May acquired an ownership interest in the Painting) . Id. Only two claimants remain at this stage in the litigation. Ascher wrote to the Court asking to be dismissed from the action, a request the Court granted. See Order of June 25, 2013. The Court then entered default judgment against the Potomack Company and two later-identified heirs of Herbert May because they failed to respond to the Complaint. See Default J. of August 28, 2013. Finally, Fireman's Fund Insurance Company assigned its rights to BMA and was thereafter voluntarily dismissed. See Stipulation of Dismissal.

On December 3, 2013, BMA filed a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, in which it argued that it has superior title based on evidence that the Painting was stolen from its collection. Fuqua opposed the motion, ...


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