Caked in dust and full of turn-of-the century treasures, this Paris apartment is like going back in time. Having lain untouched for seven decades the abandoned home was discovered three years ago after its owner died aged 91. The woman who owned the flat, a Mrs De Florian, had fled for the south of France before the outbreak of the Second World War. She never returned and in the 70 years since, it looks like no-one had set foot inside.
The painting was by Boldini and the subject a beautiful Frenchwoman who turned out to be the artist’s former muse and Mrs de Florian’s grandmother, Marthe de Florian, a beautiful French actress and socialite of the Belle Époque.
When the owner died died aged 91, experts were tasked with drawing up an inventory of her possessions
Marthe de Florian was an actress with a long list of ardent admirers whose fervent love letters she kept wrapped neatly in ribbon and were still on the premises. Among the admirers was the 72nd prime minister of France, George Clemenceau, but also Boldini. The expert had a hunch the painting was by Boldini, but could find no record of the painting. ‘No reference book dedicated to Boldini mentioned the tableau, which was never exhibited,’ said Marc Ottavi, the art specialist he consulted about the work. When Mr Choppin-Janvry found a visiting card with a scribbled love note from Boldini, he knew he had struck gold. ‘We had the link and I was sure at that moment that it was indeed a very fine Boldini’.
He finally found a reference to the work in a book by the artist’s widow, which said it was painted in 1898 when Miss de Florian was 24. The starting price for the painting was £253,000 but it rocketed as ten bidders vyed for the historic work. Finally it went under the hammer for £1.78million, a world record for the artist.
‘It was a magic moment. One could see that the buyer loved the painting; he paid the price of passion,’ said Mr Ottavi.
BLITZKREIG: HOW FRANCE CRUMBLED IN THE FACE OF HITLER’S ONSLAUGHT IN 1940
In 1939, the Germans devised a plan to inflict a major defeat on the French Army in northern France. The Manstein Plan, as it became known, included a attack through southern Belgium that avoided the Maginot Line. The ultimate objective was to reach the Channel coast and to force the French government to surrender.
Adolf Hitler gave his approval to the Manstein Plan on February 17, 1940, but it was not activated until the May 10. The 9th Panzer Division, using its Blitzkreig strategy, advanced quickly into the Netherlands. Belgium was also invaded and the French 7th Army moved forward to help support the Dutch and Belgian forces.
The French military had wrongly believed that the Ardennes was impassable to tanks. Seven panzer divisions reached the Meuse River at Dinant on May 12 and the following day the French government was forced to abandon Paris.
German forces led by Paul von Kliest, Erwin Rommel, Heinz Guderian and Gerd von Rundstedt advanced towards the Channel. Except for a counterattack by 4th Armoured Division led by Charles De Gaulle, at Montcornet (May 17) and Laon (May 27 to 29) the German forces encountered very little resistance.
Winston Churchill now ordered the implementation of Operation Dynamo, a plan to evacuate of troops and equipment from the French port of Dunkirk, that had been drawn up by General John Gort, the Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Between May 27 and June 4, 1940, a total of 693 ships brought back 338,226 people back to Britain. Of these 140,000 were members of the French Army. All heavy equipment was abandoned and left in France.
The French Army tried to hold the line along the Somme and the Aisne. Now clearly outnumbered, the troops were forced to withdraw to the Loire.
Paul Reynaud and his government now left the French capital and moved to Tours. On June 14, the Germans occupied Paris. Reynaud now realised that the German offensive could not be halted and suggested that the government should move to territories it owned in North Africa. This was opposed by his vice-premier, Henri-Philippe Petain, and the supreme commander of the armed forces, General Maxime Weygand. They insisted that the government should remain in France and seek an armistice.
Outvoted, Reynaud resigned and President Albert Lebrun, appointed Petain as France’s new premier. He immediately began negotiations with Adolf Hitler and on June 22 signed an armistice with Germany. The terms of the agreement divided France into occupied and unoccupied zones, with a rigid demarcation line between the two. The Germans would directly control three-fifths of the country, an area that included northern and western France and the entire Atlantic coast. The remaining section of the country would be administered by the French government at Vichy under Marshal Henri-Philippe Petain.
Other provisions of the armistice included the surrender of all Jews living in France to the Germans. The French Army was disbanded except for a force of 100,000 men to maintain domestic order. The 1.5 million French soldiers captured by the Germans were to remain prisoners of war. The French government also agreed to stop members of its armed forces from leaving the country and instructed its citizens not to fight against the Germans. Finally, France had to pay the occupation costs of the German troops.
An estimated 390,000 soldiers were killed defending France whereas around 35,000 German soldiers lost their lives during the invasion.