WASHINGTON – A woman who paid $7 for a box of trinkets at a West Virginia flea market two years ago apparently acquired an original painting by French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir without knowing it.
The woman considered discarding the painting to salvage its frame, but instead made an appointment to have it evaluated in July by the Potomack Co. auction house in Alexandria, Va., said its fine arts director, Anne Norton Craner.
When the woman pulled the painting out of a garbage bag that she carried it in, Craner was nearly certain the painting was a Renoir with its distinct colors, light and brushwork. A plaque on the front labeled it “Renoir.”
“My gut said that it was right, but you have to then check,” Craner said.
French handwriting on the back of the canvass included a label and number. Craner turned to the catalog by French gallery Bernheim-Jeune that has published all of Renoir’s work.
“Low and behold, it was in volume one,” she said.
The painting is set for auction Sept. 29. It could fetch $75,000 or more, Craner said.
Called “Paysage Bords de Seine,” which translates to Banks of the River Seine, the painting dates to about 1879 and measures 6 inches by 10 inches.
The Shenandoah Valley woman found the painting and kept it in storage for nearly two years. She has declined to publicly disclose her name.
After weeks of research, Craner believes Renoir gave the painting to a woman who modeled for him. The painting was then sold to the Bernheim-Jeune art gallery for 5,000 francs in 1925, according to gallery records. The following year, the gallery sold the painting to American lawyer Herbert L. May, who kept homes in New York and Geneva.
As far as Craner can tell, May kept the painting in his personal collection until his death in 1966. It’s a mystery as to how the painting ended up in West Virginia.
“It just did what paintings do sometimes – they kind of disappear out of circulation,” Craner said. “That’s what is so fantastic. This painting’s been unseen since 1926.”