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Mystery Surrounds Renoir Found in Box of Junk

An art shopper looks closely at a 5.5 inch by 6.6 inch painting by French Impressionist master Pierre-Auguste Renoir in Alexandria, Virginia, September 25, 2012.
Museum officials and police in the eastern U.S. city of Baltimore are trying to unravel the mystery of how a Renoir painting, stolen from the museum more than 60 years ago, ended up in a box of junk sold for $7 two years ago.

The woman who bought the "junk box" at a flea market in the eastern state of West Virginia had intended to sell the small landscape, known as the "Banks of the River Seine," at an auction Saturday. However, the auction has been canceled.

After keeping the painting in storage for two years, the woman decided to have it examined by the auction house, which expected to get about $75,000 for the Renoir.

The Washington Post says the Baltimore Museum of Art borrowed the painting in 1937 from art patron Saidie May, and the painting was stolen from the museum in 1951. An insurance company paid the museum $2,500.

Now, in addition to figuring out the mystery of where the Renoir has been hidden for more than six decades, authorities must also determine who is the rightful owner of the painting - the May family, the Baltimore Museum, the insurance company or the woman who purchased the Renoir in a $7 box of junk.

Art records indicate the painting was sold in 1926 by the Bernheium-Jeune gallery in Paris to American lawyer Herbert May. The family believes he gave it to his wife, Saidie, who loaned her extensive art collection to several museums.

Over the years, the stolen painting was forgotten until the Potomack Company in Alexandria, Virginia announced the auction.