Before putting the painting up for auction, The Potomack Co, found a label on the back of the canvas indicating that it had been purchased in 1926 from the Gallerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris, one of the pre-eminent Renoir dealers.
The buyer was Herbert L. May, who at the time was married to Saidie Adler May, a cousin of prominent Baltimore art collectors Claribel and Etta Cone. The Mays divorced in 1927, and the whereabouts of the painting in the ensuring 85 years were a mystery.
Saidie May was an heiress and a prominent donor who gave more than 1,000 works of art to the Baltimore museum. Earlier this week, Washington Post reporter Ian Shapira, who was interested in tracing the painting's journey from moneyed estate to a flea market, went to the Baltimore museum and began sifting through the heiress' papers. He found a note indicating that the painting had been lent to the BMA in 1937.
"We didn't think the painting had even been here because we assumed that anything that Saidie May had owned would have been part of her collection," Bolger said. "And she made a will in 1947 that left her entire collection to us."
The heiress died in May 1951, and six months later, lawyers were in the process of transferring ownership of her artworks to the Baltimore museum.
Bolger checked the museum's loan records and found an orange index card for the painting marked simply, "Stolen on Nov. 17, 1951."
That's when she picked up the phone and called Wainstein, who put through a conference call to the FBI.
The alleged theft seems to have been kept quiet. The Sun archives contain no articles reporting that a Renoir had vanished from the museum. And Bolger was flabbergasted that a theft could have occurred of which her current staff was utterly unaware.
"In 1951, we didn't have the Internet and all these research tools that we do now," she said. "At that time, records were typed and written in pen and ink. Pulling 61-year-old records together is a complicated task."
Bolger had indicated previously that the BMA wasn't planning to bid on the Renoir at auction. But, she said Thursday that if the FBI investigation concludes that the museum is the rightful owner, she would be thrilled if "Paysage Bords de Seine" were to return to Saidie May's hometown.
As Bolger put it: "We'd love to fulfill her wishes and honor her legacy."