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Renoir bought for $7 at flea market may have been stolen from museum in 1951

Potomack Company via AP

This undated image provided by the Potomack Company shows French Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir's "Paysage Bords de Seine," which was purchased for $7 at a flea market in West Virginia.

The Renoir painting that caused a sensation when it was bought at a flea market for $7 may have been stolen from a museum six decades ago, and an auction house has put its sale on hold.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir's painting "Paysage Bords de Seine" was due to go to auction through the Potomack Company on Saturday, but its sale was put on hold after a Washington Post reporter discovered documents in the Baltimore Museum of Art's library showing it was on loan there from 1937 until 1951, when it was stolen.

The Impressionist work, whose title translates as "Landscape on the Banks of the Seine," was purchased two years ago at a West Virginia flea market.

The buyer, a Virginia woman who has not revealed her name, took it to auction house The Potomack Co. in July, and experts there confirmed it was by the French master Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The frame of the painting includes a "Renoir" plaque.

"I originally bought it for the frame," the buyer admitted to NBCWashington.com earlier this month. "I was trying to rip it apart... I was like, well, maybe I should wait." The buyer's mother encouraged her to get it appraised.

It was expected to fetch $75,000 to $100,000 at auction. 

"The rest of the auction will go on, but the Renoir has been withdrawn," said Lucie Holland, a spokeswoman for The Potomack Co.

Read the story on NBCWashington.com

Potomack said that the London-based Art Loss Registry had said that the painting had never been reported stolen or missing and the FBI's art theft website did not list it as stolen either. There was also no police report from the theft.

The FBI is now investigating.

'Caught by surprise'
The Renoir came to the Baltimore museum through one of its leading benefactors, collector Saidie May. Her family bought it from the Bernheim-Jeune gallery in Paris in 1926.

The Washington Post found records in the museum's library on Tuesday that showed May had lent the paintings and other works to the museum in 1937, Potomack said.

After the newspaper told it of the findings, the Baltimore museum checked its files and found a loan record showing the Renoir had been stolen on November 17, 1951. What happened to it after the theft is unknown.

Doreen Bolger, the museum director, said the museum's probe into what happened to the painting was in early stages.

May died in May 1951 and the art collection was willed to the museum. As its ownership was going through legal transfer, the painting was stolen while still listed as on loan.

 

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"We were caught by surprise," Bolger said on Thursday.

"At this point we just want to make sure that the painting winds up where it belongs and that we provide all the information we can to law enforcement about this issue," Bolger said. 

She said that she would be happy to show the painting again if it is ultimately returned to the museum.

NBC News staff, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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