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Mystery masterpiece found in dusty Paris flat

Marie-Noelle Blessig

Agence France Press

PARIS: When an auctioneer entered a dust-covered Parisian flat in June to take inventory of the deceased owner’s possessions, he had the impression of creeping into Sleeping Beauty’s castle. In the gloom of the flat that had been shut-up for decades, he came across a portrait unknown to art experts of a beautiful woman by one of 19-century Paris’ most prized portrait artists, Italian Giovanni Boldini.

The painting recently fetched $2.9 million in frenzied bidding, making a record for one of the artist’s works.

The flat’s last occupant – the granddaughter of Boldini’s muse – had shut it up before World War II to go live in the south of France. She never returned and recently died at the age of 91, having paid upkeep fees for the large flat in central Paris for 70 years without using it.

The painting, which had hung in the flat’s living room, was the portrait of an actress of exceptional beauty who went by the name of Marthe de Florian, enshrouded in a pale pink mousseline evening dress.

She had hosted her many admirers in the flat where “she kept letters from her lovers in little packages wrapped up with ribbons of different colors,” according one of the people who worked on the inventory.

Calling cards of senior statesmen from the period were found tucked away in drawers.

When the auctioneer discovered the painting, he had a doubt about its authenticity and asked expert Marc Ottavi to examine it.

“No reference books on Boldini mentioned the painting,” said Ottavi, “which had never been exhibited in public.”

But one of Boldini’s calling cards was found with a message indicating that the painter was one of de Florian’s lovers.

“We had the link,” Ottavi said, “and I was then certain that it was a very fine Boldini.”

Nevertheless, Ottavi’s team kept investigating and, in a 1951 book by the painter’s widow, found a mention of the portrait, painted in 1898, when de Florian was 24.

When the portrait went to auction, bidding started at 300,000 euros.

“We had 10 buyers on the telephone,” Ottavi said, “and interested buyers in the room.”

Eager would-be buyers quickly bid up the painting’s price before it finally went to a collector in the auction room for 1.7 million euros, or 2.1 million euros including fees.

Born in Ferrara in 1842, Boldini moved to Paris in 1871 and quickly became one of the era’s most sought-after portrait-artists, painting the Duchess of Marlborough and Edgar Degas before he died in 1931.

 

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