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Mystery masterpiece emerges from dusty Paris flat

By Marie-Noelle Blessig

PARIS, Thursday 7 October 2010 (AFP) - When an auctioneer entered a dust-covered old 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.

"There was a smell of old dust," said auctioneer Olivier Choppin-Janvry.

The painting recently fetched 2.1 million euros (2.9 million dollars) in frenzied bidding, making a record for one of the artist's works.

The flat's last occupant, who was the grand-daughter of Boldini's muse, had shut it up before World War II to go live in the south of France and never returned.

The woman recently died at the age of 91 years, 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 colours," 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 discoverd 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 which had never been exhibited in public," said Ottavi.

However, 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 and I was then certain that it was a very fine Boldini," Ottavi said.

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

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

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

Eager would-be buyers quickly bid up the painting's price to 1.3 million euros before it finally went to a determined collector in the auction room for 1.7 million euros, or 2.1 million euros including fees.

"It was a magical moment, you could see that the buyer really liked the painting and paid the price of passion," Ottavi said.

Born in the northern Italian city of 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, Giuseppe Verdi and Edgar Degas before he died in 1931.

MySinchew 2010.10.07


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