BALTIMORE (AP) — A tiny Renoir painting has returned home to a gallery in the Baltimore Museum of Art nearly 63 years after it was stolen and then kept mysteriously hidden for decades until it resurfaced in 2012.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir's painting "On the Shore of the Seine," from about 1879, was unveiled Thursday as the centerpiece of a new exhibition, "The Renoir Returns." It opens to the public Sunday.
"It's a moment we've been looking forward to," said museum director Doreen Bolger. "I always believed in my heart that it would come back ... It's what we're about: preserving works of art."
The painting, just 5½ by 9 inches, reappeared in 2012 when a Virginia woman claimed she unknowingly bought it at a flea market for $7 and then prepared to send it to auction. But others, including her brother, later disputed the story. A Washington Post reporter discovered the painting's connection to the Baltimore museum, and police uncovered a theft report from 1951.
The Renoir became the subject of a dramatic legal dispute involving the FBI, the woman who said she found the painting, an insurance company's rights to the artwork and the intentions of Saidie May, an art collector who bought the painting in Paris in 1925 and lent it to the Baltimore museum. May later gave more than 800 artworks to the museum, including many when she died.
In January, a federal judge also awarded ownership of the little Renoir to the museum.
"Thank God we had the documentation preserved in our archives," Bolger said in an interview Thursday. "People always think, 'oh dusty archives, well whatever.' No, actually they perform a valuable function whether you're researching the genealogy of your family or the history of a work of art."
When the painting was stolen, Fireman's Fund Insurance Co., paid the museum about $2,500 for the loss in 1951. The company based near San Francisco considered whether to make a claim for the painting when it resurfaced but decided "it belonged here," said Sally Narey, the insurer's general counsel.
"I'm sure monsieur Renoir would be very surprised by the unique journey that this lovely impressionist painting has taken, and I'm also sure he would be delighted to see that it's back in its home," Narey said.
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