The Remarkable ‘Time Capsule’ Apartment of Madame de Florian.


The Remarkable ‘Time Capsule’ Apartment of Madame de Florian.

Every once in an increasingly great while you chance upon a circumstance which puts a smile on your face and warms your very cockles. My day was certainly brightened when this story broke in 2010 about a forgotten pre-war apartment discovered untouched in Paris.

The apartment of Madame Marthe de Florian in the 9th Arondissement of Paris

The apartment of Madame Marthe de Florian in the 9th Arondissement of Paris

Imagine an affluent lady, an actress and demimondaine, living in a Grand Boulevard apartment near the old Opera House in Paris during the early years of the last century. A child of La belle Epoch, her home is a treasure trove, busy with fine furniture, artwork and

The eclectic taste of Madame de Florian: 18th Century furniture, 19th Century taxidermy, 20th Century art, and a pre-war Mickey.

The eclectic taste of Madame de Florian: 18th Century furniture, 19th Century taxidermy, 20th Century art, and a pre-war Mickey.

decorative furnishings. Her many admirers have been generous. She has an eye for quality and the wherewithal to indulge her taste. She lives with exquisite antiques spanning ages of French history, as well as select works informed by the latest artistic movements. Her apartment reflects the full and hectic life of an actress and a socialite during a golden age.

Abruptly, her life was interrupted as France, Europe, the whole world was torn by the madness of World War II. As the Nazi occupation engulfed Paris, Madame de Florian fled to the relative safety of the South of France. She left her apartment as it was, en dishabille, with even a collection of love letters neatly bundled with a blue ribbon. She simply turned the key in her apartment door and escaped to the distant countryside. But unlike all of her peers, when the war ended and the menace was gone, she did not return. Perhaps her sensitive artistic soul could not bear to revisit the scene of earlier horrors. Perhaps she dreaded the ruin and change wrought in her beloved Paris. Whatever her reason, she remained in the South and never returned to her apartment. But she continued to pay the rent for the rest of her life, and so none else ever returned to her apartment either… for over 70 years!

Portrait of Madame Marthe de Florian by Giovanni Boldini, circa 1898.

Portrait of Madame Marthe de Florian by Giovanni Boldini, circa 1898; previously unknown, found in the apartment and subsequently solds for $3.4 million.

When she passed away at the age of 91, her heirs discovered that she owned this lease in Paris.  Can you imagine setting foot in a home where no one has trod for a lifetime? Think of the thrill to experience what has been untouched and undisturbed for generations? The first person to enter after all those years described a ‘smell of old dust’… and then started to notice the treasures. They said they felt as if they had slipped into the private chambers of Sleeping Beauty. Madame de Florian’s home, with the exception of one painting, remains undusted and untouched to this day.

An amazing situation, but not unique. Many people have enjoyed, or at least know of family summer homes that have changed little over the years. I was lucky as a child to spend time in the summers at an Adirondack period cottage on a lake in Maine, still pristine with hand-pumped water from the well, outdoor privy in the woodshed, and minimal electricity just encroaching on the oil lamps. The craftsman’s architectural style was beautiful and comforting, with clean wainscoting, built-in corner cabinets, semi-open staircase, and exposed beams. My grandfather’s room had a pine wash stand with pitcher of water and basin, and the chamber pot in the cubby below. I still love all those kitchen gadgets and ware: the wire baskets, racks and skewers for cooking on wood fires, stoneware, and lovingly dinged enameled tinware. The built-in cabinets held a mystery of toys and games from a much earlier time. We ate, worked and relaxed on the wide screened porch with wicker and rockers, plank tables and benches.

Antique lakefront cottage in Maine.

Antique lakefront cottage in Maine.

I have been very lucky on Nantucket to have been welcomed over the years into many homes that were truly time capsules, barely touched by the passing of time. I am still moved by an historic home in the center of town, where the clock stopped at the turn of the century. The furniture remains in their exact spots, the art original, the knickknacks and personal mementos are those of the former owner, the very books on the bedside shelf are those chosen and placed there nearly a hundred years ago! The house is a home, yet also a shrine. In a different house, with different people and a different history, this could verge on the creepy. In this case however, it is more akin to a brilliant installation, a tableau vivant.

Along upper Main Street on Nantucket: one never knows what waits behind those walls.

Along upper Main Street on Nantucket: one never knows what waits behind those walls.

There is another house, a Main Street dowager, where the furnishings have remained intact through generations of the same family for over 200 years. One sits in the same chair, at the same table on the same hand knotted carpet as did the Captain when he returned from whaling voyages before America won its independence. One looks about at the paintings and porcelains chosen and cherished by the first generation. The closets and attic hold all the family correspondence, hand written copies of letters sent, bills and invoices, complete and intact dating back from the first settlers. A nod to modern change and progress: the cabled bells to summon a particular servant from their attic quarters.

The beauty and thrill of these ‘time capsules’ is not just the great collections of period antiques. It is not just a matter of being amazed at the rare circumstance. It is more the breathless wonder of stepping physically into the past. You are not a spectator viewing antiques in a museum. You are a privileged guest, alive and well in the distant past, able this once to see and feel how life was lived. This rare trick of fate brings you into the reality of the past, rather than just imagining history as one tries through books, films and museums. It is the beauty and magic of antiques.


The photographs of the de Forian apartment have been published widely on the web: sources include Drouot Auctions, Urban Archeology, Home and Garden, Inspirationsdeco, and the Huffington Post.


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Antiques on Film

We all see the world in our own way. Our senses and perceptions are unique, our thought processes idiosyncratic. In the end our differing tastes, interests and personalities are what makes life so beguiling.

My father-in-law was the Head of Mechanical Trades Department at the Cork Institute of Technology.   He lives, eats and breathes metals, fluxes, solder and welding arcs. When he watches a film or television program his attention without fail is caught by the metal object in the corner (“Stainless would’ve been much better for that!”), or grabbed when a character refers to a metal prop (“They could never use tin for that! They would have to use galvanized for it to stand a chance!”)

And woe the poor cinematographer who dared shoot a welding scene… “That’s rubbish! It’s the wrong flame altogether! They could never weld that iron at that temperature! Are you joking me?”  We all have memories from our youth of our parents and their favourite sayings: my wife and her siblings can’t glimpse a welder or cutter at work in a film without warning “Don’t look at the flame!!!”

As for me it’s antiques. My long suffering wife has sat at my side in theatres and sitting rooms for nearly two decades and listened to me admire that chair the murderer is sitting on, or gripe about the villain smoking a cigar near the old master oil painting, or tense over the callous nephew tossing the gravelly object onto the Pembroke table (“Watch the finish!”)

Sherlock Holmes Room II

Period bliss: Authenticity on display at The Sherlock Holmes Museum on Baker Street.

When the research is done right, the set design of a film is a work of art in its own right. The set can also be quite educational, showing antiquated objects as they were used or appreciated during their original period. For example in most any Dickens or Holmes it is an eye-opener to see how a miscellany of Victorian clutter can suddenly make sense, and a visually striking design, when seen in the hesitant glow of oil lamps or gas sconces. It is inspirational to see Art Deco furniture and accessories set in their period architecture (a la Poirot). It is just as exciting to visit an Arts and Crafts suite as intended in a Craftsman’s house, or to nestle in a period Adirondack lodge.

On the other hand, when they get it wrong it is worth ringing down the curtain. Once you start to pay attention you may be shocked at the mistakes that are often made. The worst is when they can’t get the style right for the time period.  How can they possibly expect us to watch George Washington and General Knox discuss Dorchester Heights while seated on Regency chairs at an Eclectic Movement desk? I mean, what did we fight a revolution for anyway?

Films cast during the Middle Ages seem to  be especially bad … all those fantasy films with dungeons and dragons and knights in shining armour, set in these wonderfully atmospheric crofter’s cottages and stone towers. Ever notice how even peasants are typically shown in quarters crowded with furnishings? The reality was an oak table. Period.  Maybe a couple of joint stools. That’s the inventory. The whole medieval enchilada.  The wealthiest folk might, after many generations, have been able to save up for a press or dresser. But all these fully furnished rooms with richly carved cabinets, upholstered chairs, sumptuous bedsteads, heroic banquet tables and tapestries… only in King Arthur’s dreams!

Let’s jump ahead and follow Daniel Day Lewis or Mel Gibson into the Colonial Period. Now we’re talking.  Remember all those films where the redcoats couldn’t find the secret document hidden in the pewter smith’s carved mahogany library cabinets, or the frontier belle flirted in her father’s well-appointed ballroom, or in a dawn raid all this furniture would get pulled out of the pioneer’s cabin to be piled on a bonfire?  In reality these folk lived pretty as humbly as their ancestors did in the Middle Ages, although dressers, settles and a few other pieces were often on the scene by now. As for the rest I fear suspension of disbelief can only go so far, no matter how clever the plot!

Now you might think I’m taking this all a mite too seriously.  But consider:  Washington Irving borrowed and stole some folk lore here and there, moved it upstate of the Catskills and gave us the forever wonderful Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Then along comes Johnny Depp, the fog and mystery rolls into the 17th Century Hudson Valley, the suspense mounts, the Headless Horseman rises in his stirrups to dash his jack-o’lantern… and then our hero sits in a circa 1820 Windsor fan-back chair and gazes adoringly at his beloved nestled beneath her 1880s patchwork quilt. Now what can Christopher Walken possibly do to terrify us more than that?

Hollywood has got a lot to answer for, but in fairness they do occasionally get it right. When they do it is not only a sensuous pleasure, it can also be a stimulating lesson in history and the decorative arts. Come back next time and join me in a visit to Downton Abbey.