A lucky woman finds a painting with a gold frame in a box of goods at a remote flea market in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. She purchases the whole lot for $7. The painting slides around in the back of her car for a while. It spends a stint in her backyard shed. Two years go by, and on a hunch, she decides to see if the painting with “RENOIR” on the frame is the real deal. She carries it in a plastic bag to a local auction house where they tell the lucky woman that she may soon become $100,000 richer.
Once Potomack Company Auctioneers released that they were selling a “lost” work by French Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the news spread like wildfire. Newspapers including the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and even as far as Al-Jazeera and the UK’s The Guardian and Daily Mail. Though the lucky woman wished to remain anonymous, news of her story was the talk of the town.
And for good reason! What better story than a woman unwittingly stumbling upon a treasure? The story had an “Antiques Roadshow” quality to it. The woman had been living with a lost masterpiece without even knowing it!
But things weren’t like they originally seemed.
On September 27, 2012 just before the painting was to go on sale at Potomack Auctions, The Washington Post published an article titled “Flea-market Renoir allegedly was stolen from a Baltimore museum; auction canceled”. The FBI quickly seized the work and began investigating the auction house and the now-unlucky lady. The BMA is still feeling the fallout.
Why did the story garner so much national and international attention? Why were we so fascinated by the prospect of finding the diamond ring in the hay pile?
Here is a fairly typical example.