A $7 flea market Renoir?

Finding a priceless painting in a box of random tchotchkes bought for a few bucks at a flea market is so common a fantasy it’s a cliché now. It may have actually happened, though, to a woman in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia. She was browsing a local flea market when a Paul Bunyan doll and a plastic cow caught her eye. They were in a box along with a small painting in an elaborate gilded wood frame. She had never seen a Paul Bunyan doll before, so she bought the box and all its contents for $7.

Once she got her treasures home, she tore the brown paper off the back of the painting and threw it away. She was going to throw the canvas in the garbage too because all she was interested in was the frame, but her mother pointed out that she should have an expert look at it before getting rid of it, just in case in was worth something. A plaque with the name “Renoir” on the front of the frame also suggested it might be a good idea to have it appraised.

Wisely following her mother’s advice, “Renoir Girl,” as the anonymous woman refers to herself, put the painting in a white plastic trash bag and brought it to The Potomack Company, an auction house in Alexandria, Virginia. In-house fine arts specialist Anne Norton Craner examined the painting.

“When I removed the painting from the plastic bag it was stored in, I saw that its radiant plein air quality – the rapid brush strokes, the vibrant purple and pink colors, the Seine as subject matter and the luminous light reminded me immediately of Renoir’s 1879 Landscape of Wargemont,” said Craner.

Gallery label affixed to the painting's frameA gallery label on the back of the frame identified the painting as “Paysage Bords de Seine” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Craner researched the title and found it listed in Renoir’s catalogue raisonné, the compilation of all the known works by the artist. The last records of the painting are from the 1920s. It was purchased from the Bernheim-Jeune gallery in France in 1925. In 1926 it was purchased by lawyer and Renoir collector Herbert L. May, husband (although they had separated in 1924) of Saidie Adler May, a renowned art collector in her own right whose 300 works by the likes of Matisse, Picasso, and Pollock now reside at the Baltimore Museum of Art. That’s all we know. Presumably May brought it to Baltimore, but the paper trail ends at his purchase.

The Potomack Company brought in an outside Renoir expert to examine the painting and he or she apparently confirmed the painting’s provenance. It’s not clear from the press release or other articles who the expert is and whether the painting itself has been confirmed as Renoir’s Paysage Bords de Seine.

It seems like the auction house is treading a fine line between claiming authenticity and hedging their bets. The painting is going up for auction on September 29th. The estimated sale price is $75,000-100,000, which is a tiny fraction of what confirmed Renoirs sell for at auction now. Bal au moulin de la Galette, Montmartre, a smaller version of the one in the Musée d’Orsay, sold in 1990 for $78,000,000.

The flea market painting is a landscape, possibly from Renoir’s first two decades of work. They are less valued in the market than his later portraits of people. It’s also very small, only 5.5 by 9 inches. Still, flea market “finds” are so often copies or even deliberate forgeries that it would take a lot more than the information currently being publicized for me to believe this nice lady really hit the jackpot.

Here’s the alleged Paysage Bords de Seine (on the left) next to the Landscape of Wargemont, now in the permanent collection of the Toledo Museum of Art (on the right). The pinks, purples, light and brushstrokes in the piece on the left reminded Mrs. Craner of the one on the right. I’m skeptical.

Alleged "Paysage Bords de Seine" by Pierre-Auguste Renoir "Landscape at Wargemont" by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1879

22 thoughts on “A $7 flea market Renoir?

  1. *nod* I dream of that too!

    Bernheim-Jeune was a totally trustworthy organisation. If the paper trail can be taken back to that gallery, I would be very confident about the history of the work. Of course then it would need to be examined to establish it as Renoir’s handiwork.

    I once took a risk on a painting, hoping it would be a famous 17th century Dutch old master. It wasn’t.

    1. There’s no paper trail whatsoever, I’m afraid, connecting this particular painting to Bernheim-Jeune. The gallery name is not on the label, only a stock number. The fine arts specialist said the label looks like an old French gallery label, but that doesn’t mean a thing, of course. If they could find records that matched the item number on the label to Bernheim-Jeune inventory, that would be a major step.

      Until then, somebody is just going to have to take the same risk you did. I hope you didn’t lose $100,000 on yours.

  2. Expensive frame & not a bad painting – beats the hell out of those dreadful gaudy fat girls & broads that “The Market” loves. Think the finder could be on to something.

    1. Could be, but I’ll reserve judgement. If you look up some of Renoir’s other Seine landscapes, they’re much more detailed. If anything this looks more like a Monet to me.

      As for the puerile “fat broads” burn, de gustibus non est disputandum and all that.

  3. I knew the pair of portraits were not of the quality of Ferdinand Bol or Thomas de Keyser. But I still thought they were probably 1660s or 70s, and I knew they were Dutch from the clothing and furniture.

    When the Antique Road Show came to Melbourne, my husband stood for 3 hours in the painting queue, only to be told that they were probably from the last third of the 18th century. Joe was told to keep them if he liked them, or sell them at a loss 🙁

  4. One would think that if it were a real Renoir, a person would have taken more care to put the plaque on the frame straight.

    1. I was wondering if there’s was a picture of it in the CR. I wish any of the myriad articles on the find included that photograph. There are no copyright issues with a picture that old that would prevent them.

      I take issue with this sentence from the article:

      The label on the painting’s back provided the title and indicated that the painting had been purchased in 1926 from the Gallerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris

      The label on the back says nothing at all about the date of purchase or the gallery. I haven’t seen any indication that anyone was able to establish a genuine link between the label and Bernheim-Jeune beyond the simple appearance being in keeping with French gallery labels from that time. Even if the painting is authentic, this kind of sloppy work makes me very uncomfortable.

    1. I did check it. In fact I quoted from it. Unless I’m missing something or my browser is failing, the picture from the CR is not in that article. My point is why have none of the news stories included that 1920s picture? There’s no copyright issue that would prevent its publication.

  5. It’s not in there, you’re right, but there are sufficient specifics in the piece, and the Washington Post is a respectable paper, to suggest – taken along with the quality of the painting – that the attribution is correct.

    1. I don’t see evidence of any original research whatsoever by the Washington Post, I’m afraid. They’re just repeating what the auction specialist told them. Again, she may well be entirely correct in her assessment, but the evidence as it has been presented to the public is very sparse indeed.

  6. We just predicted that this painting will sell at auction for $500,000! If you want to find valuable art for peanuts, check out The Art Hunters Handbook on Amazon. Happy hunting! Les

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