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.
A 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.