ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — The story began with one of those improbable tales of an artistic masterpiece uncovered at a flea market. It concluded Friday, the painting still a masterpiece but the story about the flea market all the more improbable.
A federal judge awarded ownership of a disputed Renoir painting to a Baltimore museum, citing "overwhelming evidence" that the painting had been stolen from the museum more than 60 years ago.
The judge's decision rejected the claims of a Virginia woman, Marcia "Martha" Fuqua, who maintained that she bought the painting at a flea market for $7, even as others, including her own brother, disputed her story.
In making her ruling Friday, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema did not pass judgment of the truthfulness of Fuqua's story. The judge said only that because the museum had shown the painting was stolen, it didn't matter how Fuqua acquired it — she could not legally gain possession of stolen property even if she acted in good faith.
Fuqua did not attend the hearing. Her lawyer, Wayne Biggs, declined to comment on whether he would appeal.
The napkin-sized painting made news in 2012 when an auction company announced plans to sell it on behalf of an anonymous woman dubbed "Renoir girl" who said she bought the painting at a West Virginia flea market in 2009 for $7. The woman said she did not know the painting was a Renoir when she bought it, even though it was held in a frame with a "RENOIR" panel attached.
The auction company had expected to fetch at least $75,000, but the auction was canceled when the Baltimore Museum of Art came forward with long-forgotten records showing the painting had been stolen in 1951.
As it turned out, Fuqua's mother, who used the name Marcia Fouquet, was an artist who specialized in reproducing paintings from Renoir and other masters, and who had extensive links to Baltimore's art community in the 1950s.
In addition, Fuqua's brother, Owen "Matt" Fuqua, told a Washington Post reporter that he had seen the painting in the family home numerous times, well before his sister supposedly bought it in 2009, though Matt Fuqua changed his story several times subsequently.
The FBI seized the painting in October 2012 and has been keeping it while the courts sorted through the ownership claims.
After Friday's hearing, Matt Fuqua said he was glad the museum is getting the painting and called his sister a liar.
"I'm ecstatic because the truth came out," he said.
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