How Washington Post reporter tracked down flea-market Renoir painting

A Renoir painting purchased at a West Virginia flea market was apparently stolen in 1951, Washington Post reporter Ian Shapira discovered, causing an auction company to cancel its planned sale and complicating its discoverer's intention to purchase a new floor for her kitchen with the proceeds.

"I wanted to write a piece that was about the chase, that was about the mystery of the painting, knowing full well that I would find likely nothing at all," Shapira said by phone Friday morning.

The Baltimore Sun wrote the first big story I can find about the painting's discovery. The Post followed the next day with a story by Shapira. But the painting's hinky provenance -- its last recorded purchaser was a man named Herbert L. May -- bugged him. From Shapira's original story:

Somehow, the painting traveled from May — a man who split his time between Geneva and New York — to the West Virginia flea market. It was there, in fall 2010, that the Virginia woman, who [the auction company] Potomack says is from the Shenandoah Valley, bought it from a person she does not remember.

After getting permission from his editors to skip a scheduled cop shift, Shapira made a trip to Harper's Ferry, W.V., hoping to find the painting's vendor. He found someone who thought he'd sold it, and he'd considered writing a story about the connections between auction houses and flea markets.

He began interviewing May's relatives. One of them said that Herbert May's wife, Saidie Adler May, had all of her papers stored at the Baltimore Museum of Art, which has a wing dedicated to her. Shapira spent this past Tuesday in the museum's library, looking through microfilm of May's papers. They were in no particular order. The museum's librarian told Shapira she'd been through the papers but hadn't found anything that suggested the museum had ever had that painting in its possession.

Two-and-a-half hours in, he found a document called "List of Modern Paintings in the Saidie A. May Loan Collection." It listed them by artist, in alphabetical order.

"I’m obviously looking for the Rs," Shapira said. "It lists off three Renoir paintings, but not the Renoir painting I’m looking for."

On the next page, he found it, with a slightly different title, along with a loan registration number that led museum officials to a record that listed the painting as having been stolen. The museum had looked before in its permanent collection records, but because the painting was stolen, the record had never made its way out of the loan archives.

The museum contacted the auction house, which canceled the planned auction. The auction house, Alexandria, Va.'s Potomack Company, said in a press release it had contacted the FBI and that it is now investigating the painting's alleged theft, for which there is no police record.

"Maybe a traditional instinct would have been, 'We're only going to do a story if you find something,' " Shapira said of The Post. He said he was determined to write a story about the hunt for the painting no matter what, pointing out the "delicious coincidences" that hinted at possible routes from Herbert L. May to the flea market -- Herbert's granddaughter's second husband was president of an art auction house, for instance.

And indeed The Post has a history of telling stories about chases that only sometimes pan out. My favorite is a 2010 story by Chris Richards about how Parliament-Funkadelic's 20-foot spaceship prop was rumored to have been dumped somewhere in the woods surrounding Chocolate City (no spaceship turned up). Shapira cites a 2001 story by Darraugh Johnson about the hunt for a local character nicknamed Speedo Man (found him).

Shapira works for the paper's local enterprise team. He loves getting documents in the course of reporting; having them, he said, "makes you go to bed at night feeling a little more comfortable."

He and his friends "laugh at shows like 'The Newsroom' where like everyone seems to get a scoop at a snap of their fingers," he said. "I always joke that if someone wanted to make a movie about journalists, it would be very boring."

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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