Paris Apartment Frozen in Time for 70 Years Reveals a Valuable Secret
1. The Key to a Locked Secret
In June 2010, a woman, known only to the public as Mrs. De Florian, passed way at the age of 91 in the rustic and peaceful countryside of the south of France. Upon her death, it was discovered that among her assets was an apartment in Paris that few had been aware of for 70 years.
It was up to a team of professionals to step into the apartment and take inventory of all her possessions. They expected a routine appraisal to provide a neat valuation of the elderly woman’s assets. Instead, they found themselves inside a completely different world once they stepped inside.
2. Entering the Time Capsule
After her death in 2010, auctioneer Olivier Choppin-Janvry headed a team of experts to enter the apartment. Notebooks and equipment in hand, the team entered the apartment, located in Paris’s 9th arrondissement near the red-light district and the Opera Garnier. They were definitely stunned by what they saw. It was like entering a huge time capsule.
Upon entering the sealed doors, a thick layer of dust greeted them, covering the beautiful furniture and artwork. “There was a smell of old dust,” said Choppin-Janvry. What intrigued him most was that it felt like they had “stumbled into the castle of sleeping beauty.” The entire place turned out to be a priceless find.
3. Time at a Standstill
The experts walked around and discovered that they were walking through a perfect, real example of Paris at the height of its celebrated cultural renaissance, known as the Belle Époque, or the Beautiful Era in English. Aside from the dust and some mold, it was as if time had stood completely still.
Under a thick layer of dust, remnants of a social lifestyle that encouraged lavish parties were everywhere. The furniture was lush, perfume ready to be dabbled and fancy dresses hung in the closet. It looked like whoever lived here was ready to party like its 1899.
4. What Was the Rush?
Mrs. de Florian left her Parisian apartment, seemingly in a rush, just as the Second World War was in full swing. She headed immediately for the south. Germans had taken over the government in Paris, and the city was firmly under oppressive Nazi control by the time 23-years old de Florian decided to flee.
The Nazis were highly disliked by Parisians. Rationing was imposed, a strict curfew was enforced, and Jews were sent to concentration camps. In the south, possibly Mrs. de Florian hoped for a better life and she must have found it … because she never returned.
5. Walking Through History
When the experts unlocked the sealed doors of the mysterious Parisian apartment at 2 Rue La Bruyère, they came across books and newspapers lined across the shelves and gold curtains that draped the tall windows, blocking out the light.
One piece of furniture that caught the appraiser’s eyes was a luxurious vanity upon which perfumes, hairbrushes, and candle stubs were strewn. Even after almost 70 years of waiting, the lavish dresser seemed to ready to greet a very glamorous, upper-class socialite.
6. Ready For Dinner?
If it wasn’t for the dust and some of the mess, the team could have sat down at the formal dining room and dined at the large wooden table situated under the Victorian chandelier suspended from the pressed tin ceiling. The table housed candelabras, china pieces, and many small ornaments.
Near to the table was a wooden stove and stone sink fully stocked with pots, pans, and glassware. The accessories and trimmings of the house indicated that whoever resided in this apartment, seemed to enjoy hosting elegant dinners and social gatherings. These discoveries seemed to be part of a much wider collection of wealthy items.
7. Disney and Decadent Decor
Taxidermy pieces were a sign of great affluence in the early 1900s, and this Parisian apartment had several extravagant pieces, the most notable being a stuffed ostrich draped with a shawl and placed against floral wallpaper and wooden wall panels.
Placed next to this huge stuffed ostrich were two items of pop culture: Mickey Mouse and Porky the Pig stuffed animals, clearly from before World War II. Some items in the apartment had suffered from years of decay, but one item in particular stunned all who chanced upon it. You will soon see why.
8. The Biggest Surprise
Choppin-Janvry said his heart skipped a beat when he noticed a stunning portrait of a woman clothed in a pink evening gown. The painting showed an elegant woman embellished with impressive jewels perched up against a chaise longue.
The woman’s attire and pose indicated that she was a socialite of the wealthier class during the Belle Époque era, and possibly even a high-class French courtesan because of her hairstyle and dress. Choppin-Janvry was intrigued to know who this woman was and who painted this extraordinary tableau.
9. A Famous Lover
It turns out that the painting was done by the famed 19th century Italian artist, Giovanni Boldini. But up until researchers entered the apartment, it had been totally unknown to the world, save for a few choice people. Art experts believe that the woman in the portrait was the grandmother of Mrs. de Florian: a socialite and theater actress named Marthe de Florian.
Marthe de Florian was reputed to be the talk of the town during the late 1800s because she was a certain kind of courtesan belonging to a group known as les demimondaines, the wild girls of the time. They lived lavish lifestyles, partied frequently and usually had a number of high-profile lovers.
10. Digging for the Truth
When news broke of this strange apartment and mysterious painting, art experts and members of the public were fascinated. People sifted through French genealogical records to uncover more details about the family and this so-called Marthe de Florian.
Birth records and old newspaper clippings showed that Marthe’s real name was Mathilde Heloise Beaugiron and that she worked as a seamstress. She bore two children before she turned to acting and the more lucrative “society girl” business. But why would the famous Boldini paint her? Was this woman Boldini’s secret lover?
11. World Leaders and Racy Love Letters
When Choppin-Janvry found the portrait of the woman donning the silk evening dress, he also found a bundle of letters wrapped in an array of colorful ribbons. The handwriting scrawled on the love letters belonged to Boldini and Georges Clemenceau, a future prime minister of France. These proved to be a powerful link.
One of the art experts working on the case was Marc Ottavi. He noted that among the letters was a visiting card on which Boldini had written a love note. “We had the link and I was sure at that moment that [the painting] was indeed a very fine Boldini.” These letters were just one clue into the life of this high-class courtesan, but there was more.
12. A String of Famous Love Affairs
Marthe de Florian was reputed for her love affairs with famous figures, including many politicians. She was rumored to have had affairs with Georges Clemenceau (the 72nd Prime Minister of France), Pierre Waldeck-Rousseau (the 68th Prime Minister of France), Paul Deschanel (11th President of France), and Gaston Doumergue (13th President of France).
These were all in addition to the affair with Boldini. And although the painting was never listed in any way, the love letters proved to be enough to piece together the whole mysterious puzzle of this apartment. Still, there was still one more reference that would confirm the findings.
13. Emilia Cardona
Once Ottavi established the background of the painting, he found a book that would act as another reference to Boldini and Marthe de Florain’s love affair. The artist’s wife, Emilia Cardona, wrote a book about her life and famous husband in 1951 and it proved to hold a revealing detail.
According to the book, the portrait was painted in 1888 when the actress was 24-years-old. Cardona also mentioned a short reference to the affair. It became clear that this woman had a long list of ardent admirers. What led her into this life?
14. Woman in the Painting
Once the avid readers did some digging, they found that Marthe de Florian was indeed a French courtesan who was born on September 9, 1864. She died on August 29, 1939 and her memory was almost erased from history until all her belongings were found by Choppin-Janvry’s team in 2010.
According to the records, she was born in the 18th arrondissement of Paris to Jean Beaugiron and Henriette Eloïse Bara. She had three younger siblings, but two of her brothers died young. Records of her sister were sparse. On October 12, 1882, Beaugiron gave birth to her first son, Henri Beaugiron. His father was unknown and the birth certificate stated that her profession was as an embroiderer. Her son died at the age of three months, but two years later things changed for her.
15. A Cherished Son
On April 7, 1884, Beaugiron gave birth to her second son and also named him Henri Beaugiron. The boy spent his life in Paris and died on May 12, 1966 while living at the same address as the apartment on Rue La Bruyère. However, it appears that he did not live in the apartment in question.
His paternity was also unknown, but historians think his father might have been one of de Florian’s lovers, Auguste Albert Gaston Florian Mollard, a married banker and lover of Beaugiron. The name “de Florian” is thought to have come from him.
16. The Real Mrs. de Florian?
Marthe de Florian turned to acting and to the life of a courtesan. Her last and most famous apartment was located at 2 Rue La Bruyère in the 9th arrondissement of Paris. Henri witnessed her death and signed his mother’s certificate of death in 1939.
For a time after his mother’s death, Henri resided in the apartment with his daughter, Solange Beaugiron, who eventually inherited the apartment. This seems to be the identity of the 91-year-old “Mrs. de Florian”. Solange was an aspiring playwright during her teenage years, and sometimes used the pseudonym “Solange Beldo.”
17. A Beautiful Time in Paris
It turned out that this apartment was a very significant location during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Since it had been untouched for so many years, it offered a rare glimpse into life at the turn of the 20th century.
The city’s upper class was experiencing rapid technological advances, peace in the region, and a robust economy. Life was filled with bistros, music halls, courtesans and cabarets. The apartment, painting and Marthe de Florian’s story all provided insight into the luxe, carefree lifestyle of the era.
18. Auctioning the Masterpiece
Once it was confirmed that the painting was definitely the work of Giovanni Boldini, it finally went on the auction block. Its starting price was €253,000, or $331,000, but it quickly shot up when 10 bidders competed for the historic work.
After several offers, the painting was sold for €2.1million — about $3.4 million. It marked a world record for any of Boldini’s works. Ottavi exclaimed: “It was a magic moment. One could see that the buyer loved the painting; he paid the price of passion.”
19. Nazi Looting and Plunder
It was fortunate that this painting stayed locked up because around the time the apartment was abandoned, Nazis in Paris were on a rampage of stealing and even destroying fine art. If the apartment would not have been locked up for good by Solange, it may have suffered the same fate as countless other works of art in Europe.
It was truly a miracle that Marthe de Florian’s portrait and apartment survived the Third Reich’s reign of terror and the horrors of World War II. As you’re about to see, much of European art became shrouded in tragedy.
20. Hitler’s Affinity for the Arts
Adolf Hitler was an unsuccessful artist who was rejected entry to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. Despite this, he regarded himself as a connoisseur of the arts. He instructed the Nazis to plunder cultural property from every territory they conquered.
Furthermore, he instructed the Nazis to destroy any art he deemed degenerate, like Modern Art, and to steal any valuable pieces for the Third Reich. Organizations were created to discern which public and private collections were most valuable to the Nazi regime. They would do anything needed to obtain the art, even if it meant sending the owners to concentration camps. Was that what Mrs. De Florian feared?
21. Stealing All of Europe’s Art
The Nazis stole so much valuable art that approximately 20% of Europe’s art was said to be looted by them. Furthermore, over 100,000 items were never returned to the rightful owners and a majority of items stolen were never found again.
Pieces of great cultural significance are still missing, while other pieces of art remain in a state of limbo, with no clear answer about who is the true owner. One famous case is that of Maria Altmann, whose story grabbed headlines around the world. Her story is truly tragic.
22. “The Woman in Gold”
One famous story resulting from the Nazi looting, plunder, and theft is that of Maria Altmann’s family and the painitng “Women in Gold” by Gustav Klimt, in particular. Klimt originally titled the painting the “Portrait of Adele Block-Bauer I” and named it after the woman who posed for it, Maria Altmann’s aunt Adele.
The famous piece of artwork was stolen by the Nazis after Adele’s husband, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, fled Austria. The painting ended up at the Austrian State Gallery following the war. Upon Ferdinand’s death in 1945, just after the war ended, his estate became the property of his nephew and niece, the latter being Maria Altmann.
23. Insufferable Thieves
The Nazis stole jewelry, various other paintings, and Maria’s father’s Stradivarius cello. One of the most valuable things they stole was the gold leaf 1907 portrait of Adele. Atlmann bitterly recalled how “they just came and took things. They didn’t ask you.”
She went on to say: “They just rang the doorbell and I opened it and there they were. They were not in uniform because it was Gestapo and they didn’t wear uniforms. My father died two weeks after that, it was absolutely a broken heart – he died of a broken heart.” The Nazis were very proud to steal personal belongings of Jews.
24. Hermann Göring’s wife, Emmy
The diamond necklace worn by Adele in the portrait was also stolen by the Nazis and given to the Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring. He then bequeathed the necklace to his wife Emmy, who sported the necklace to lavish Nazi parties.
“They immediately asked me for my jewelry which I had just gotten from my uncle for my wedding present,” lamented Altmann of the Gestapo’s 1938 uninvited visit to the family home. “It was Adele’s beautiful diamond necklace with the earrings to match. That went to Mrs. Göring.”
25. Reclamation and Restitution
Many years after the war, Altmann heard about azi-stolen art being repatriated to its original owners. She launched efforts to reclaim some of the paintings that the Nazis stole from her family in Vienna, Austria during World War II.
At the age of 82 in 1998, Altmann began a hard battle and eventually succeeded in retrieving five of six stolen paintings, one of which was “The Woman in Gold,” regarded in Austria as its crown jewel.
26. Another Auction
In June, 2006, Atlmann and her heirs sold the painting to Ronald Lauder, the son of the cosmetics magnate Estée Lauder, for a record $135 million. At that time, it was the highest price ever paid for a painting.
Lauder placed the work in the Neue Galerie Museum in New York that he co-founded. Since then, the painting has been on display to the public. Altmann didn’t want any private person buying her paintings because she wanted the whole world to enjoy them. Her aunt Adele wanted the same before her death in 1925. This is just one story among thousands; some of which still need to be solved.
27. The Basis of a Mystery Novel
The fact that Solange never returned to the apartment, but continued to pay for it raised plenty of questions. Did she know of the painting and affair? Why did Solange flee so quickly and leave her entire life behind? The intriguing story naturally set imaginations on fire.
All that inspired author Michelle Gable to pen the book A Paris Apartment in 2014. The book tells the story of a furniture specialist from Sotheby’s who winds up in an abandoned apartment and finds the letters and journals of a famed courtesan.
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