Legend has it that Renoir painted the tiny piece of art for his mistress on a linen napkin. American art collectors Herbert and Saidie May had donated the painting to the Baltimore museum after they bought it in 1925 in Paris.
The painting resurfaced in 2012, when a woman attempted to sell the piece to an auction house after she "found" it "at a West Virginia flea market." Reporter Ian Shapira called the museum about the piece after its reemergence, but they had no record of the painting. Intrigued, Shapira started his own investigation.
"I found some documents showing that the museum had actually owned this painting," Shapira tells NPR news. "Then the museum discovered documents on its own showing that the staff back in the 1950s had actually reported the painting stolen."
It turns out that On the Shore of the Seine had been stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art in November 1951. The brother of the woman who tried to sell the painting told Shapira the piece had been in his mother's house for years.
Their mother, Marcia Fouquet, was a painter who attended art college in Baltimore in the 1950s. Fouquet died in 2013, but her former tenants told Shapira they remembered seeing the painting in her Fairfax, Virginia, home for decades. No one knows how she ended up with the painting.
The case went to court after Fouquet's daughter remained insistent that she had bought the painting at a flea market. The judge ruled in the Baltimore Museum of Art's favor, and the painting has now been returned.
"The painting became sort of a prodigal child," museum director Doreen Bolger says. "No matter how many children you have -- and we have 90,000 in this institution -- you feel for the one that is lost. So to be able to have it come home is just incredibly meaningful for us."
On the Shore of the Seine will be displayed in "The Renoir Returns" exhibition. The exhibit opens to the public on Sunday at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Admission to the museum is free.