A French elitist
Marthe de Florian was a French courtesan born on September 9, 1864, to Jean Beaugiron and Henriette Eloïse Bara in France’s capital city of Paris. Paris is split into 20 separate districts, known formally as arrondissements.
Marthe was born in the 18th arrondissement and lived there during the first years of her life. She later moved to a Parisian apartment elsewhere, where she lived, happily and lavishly, until she passed away on August 29, 1939. Yet, what she left behind uncovered secrets that would shock a team of experts brought in to create an inventory of her belongings.
While living in her apartment in Paris, Marthe de Florian gave birth to a son, whom she named Henri, on October 12, 1882. Tragically, Henri passed away at just three months old. Henri had no details of his father on his birth certificate, besides the fact that he was an embroiderer.
Marthe had a second son a little over a year after she lost her first, on April 7, 1884. She named this child Henri in memory of her firstborn and he, too, had no recorded details of his father.
The Parisian apartment
Marthe de Florian’s much-loved family home was located in the 9th arrondissement of Paris, just a few districts away from her birthplace. The apartment was in a busy area near the Pigalle Red Light District – the location on which the film Moulin Rouge was based.
The area was a bright and vibrant place, where Marthe de Florian enjoyed spending many nights while attending high-profile parties and events. The exact location of the apartment is debated, but it is rumored to be on Rue La Bruyère.
After Marthe de Florian’s passing in 1939, her son, Henri Beaugiron, and his daughter, known only as Mrs. de Florian, moved into the apartment. It is said that Mrs. de Florian’s name has remained a secret for many years due to strict French privacy laws which prevent the media from being told her full, or real, name.
However, many believe her to be Solange Beaugiron – a young, aspiring playwright, who wrote scripts under the stage name Solange Beldo.
The apartment remained in the family for many years, with Henri Beaugiron and Mrs de Florian calling it their home for a number of years. The couple left the apartment and relocated to the south of France for unknown reasons, yet remained the owners of the property until she passed away in 2010.
Very few people were aware of the apartment, and no one knew whether anything had been left behind; so it was agreed that a team of experts would investigate the apartment.
Evaluating the assets
Once a team of people was comprised – led by auctioneer, Olivier Choppin-Janvry – they headed to the apartment. Their job was to evaluate the apartment and all of the assets, if any, which remained inside.
They were to create an inventory of each item which prevailed in the Parisian time-capsule, and, if possible, develop a valuation of them all. The team had no idea as to what they would find in the apartment and were unsure as to whether or not anything had been left behind when the couple fled.
Frozen in time
Once inside the apartment, the team was astonished to discover the apartment to be almost in full working order. Each room was still immaculately decorated, equipped with furniture and items which would have made it a home.
Every item in the property was covered in thick layers of dust, but everything remained untouched and just as it would have appeared 70 years earlier. The team reported that it felt like they were stepping back in time, almost as though they were in an alternate universe.
The Belle Époque era
The team of experts identified critical features of the Belle Époque era within the apartment, where the homeowners had an evident passion for art and literature, as was the norm during this time. The apartment screamed sophistication and elegance, with all of its beautiful furnishings and enchanting dècor.
It was clear to the team that this was a well cared for house in its day, and would have been home to a very house-proud family. So, why would they leave?
Within the home were a series of luxurious items and furniture, which highlighted the dignified and stylish life this family lived. Everything within the apartment accentuated the elite class of which Mrs. de Florian belonged, along with her grandmother, Marthe de Florian.
Here, in the Parisian apartment, owned by the line of de Florian’s, lavish parties would have been hosted, as illustrated by the perfumes and beautiful dresses still trapped in the abandoned apartment. Closets and drawers were brimming with expensive jewelry, fragrances, and outfits of upper-class women.
The team explained that the apartment had stunning tall windows, which allowed the rooms to be lit up by the delicate natural light. The windows were embraced by thick, decorative curtains, which would have served to darken the house during parties so that only the traditional Victorian chandelier illuminated the room.
One member of the team allegedly stated that it was “like stumbling into the castle of Sleeping Beauty,” where all of its grace and charm remained uninterrupted.
Once inhabited, now abandoned
The team was taken aback on the discovery of a large, wooden dresser. They declared that it was full of expensive possessions, further proving the high status of the de Florian women. It was bursting with more perfumes and hairbrushes.
The team could just imagine the lavish lifestyle both de Florian families led in Paris. The apartment housed a large wooden dining table, along with a wood stove and stone sink, complete with pots, pans, glassware, and cutlery. It was somewhat heartbreaking to see such a beautiful apartment, deserted.
Another status symbol
In these times, including the Belle Époque era, which was so focused on art, taxidermy was a status symbol for high-profile families. If the other assets in the house were not proof enough, a large taxidermy ostrich stood in one room, to further demonstrate just how elite the de Florian’s were.
Two old stuffed toys of Porky the Pig and Mickey Mouse sat on the floor beside it, estimated to have been from before the Second World War.
During their investigation, the team stumbled upon their first surprise – newspapers. The newspapers depicted World War II and detailed events that were occurring during the same time as the war. Could this be why the house had been abandoned?
The group of investigators established a theory about the desolate apartment. They concluded that the war had forced Mrs. de Florian to flee the home, to the safer countryside of southern France, therefore leaving their once beloved home completely frozen in time.
Though Mrs. de Florian had changed residences, she continued to pay rent on her Parisian heirloom. De Florian absconded at 23 years old and owned the apartment right up until she passed away at the age of 91.
After she left, no one ever returned to the property, and it remained perfectly untouched up until the team began their investigation. Unbeknownst to anyone, the apartment was keeping the family’s secrets, stories and possessions locked tightly away.
Somewhere within the apartment, the team uncovered a shocking discovery – a painting of a sophisticated woman in a satin gown. Choppin-Janvry and his team speculated that it was the creation of famous artist Giovanni Boldini but had no definitive proof.
They believed the painting to be of Marthe de Florian, the homeowner’s grandmother, and original owner of the residence. Although, the team was astonished that the art had survived the perilous looting during the war, which cost Europe 20 percent of its artwork – 100,000 pieces of which were never returned.
The painting’s muse
After some extensive research, they concluded that the subject of the painting was Marthe, during her bustling days as part of Les Demimondaines. She would have lived an exuberant life, spending most of her time drinking, spending excessive amounts of money, and bringing a regular string of lovers back to the apartment.
The painting was never exhibited, however, and so there were no records or details of its existence, including having no known date of creation.
They decided to delve into genealogical records, which revealed Marthe’s true identity. Her birth name was Mathilde Beaugiron, and Marthe de Florian was a courtesan ‘stage name.’ She was a seamstress prior to this, and the team deduced her career change was down to the need to better support her son.
They also discovered that Marthe’s son was registered to Mathilde Vaugiron on his birth certificate, but was later changed to Beaugiron. This may have been an honest mistake, or deliberate, to hide that he was born out of wedlock.
The investigative team later noticed a pile of letters, bound in different colored ribbons. On further inspection, they found that the ribbons were specifically color-coded for each of Marthe’s main lovers.
The letters were addressed to Marthe from a multitude of upper-class men, including a whole host of French presidents and prime ministers, such as Georges Clemenceau, Pierre Waldeck-Rousseau, Paul Deschanel and Gaston Doumergue. These revealed that Marthe was quite the popular elitist and left her mark on a considerable number of her affairs.
Within the hoard of letters, a visiting card was exposed by team member, Marc Ottavi. On the back was a love note devoted to Marthe. The note confirmed the team’s suspicions. It was signed from Boldini. This validated their previous theory about the painting.
If Boldini had been one of Marthe’s (many) lovers, then there was no doubt that the painting was his handiwork. The team finally had the confirmation they needed and set out to take it to auction.
One last affirmation
Shortly before taking the piece to an auction house, Choppin-Janvry and the other experts were made aware of a book, which was of particular interest to them. Giovanni Boldini’s wife, Emilia Cardona, had published a book of her life.
Of course, it included many details about Boldini and their relationship. The team noticed a section of the book about the remarkable painting. Cardona recorded that Boldini had illustrated Marthe in 1888 when she was 24-years-old.
The final sale
With their new, complete confirmation, they took Boldini’s artwork to a local auction. The starting price was around the equivalent of $250,000.
There was an astounding number of bidders who fought for the painting, with it eventually selling at over $2,500,000. This was a record-breaker for Boldini’s art, with it being the highest-grossing painting of his ever sold.