Prizing open the fusty, cobwebbed apartment of an elderly woman who had recently died, an auctioneer in Paris recently came across a vision of loveliness. Amid the overwhelming smell of dust and the gloom hanging in the air, Olivier Choppin-Janvry was struck by an image of a young beauty clad in a pink evening dress. He was spellbound. The flat had been uninhabited for 70 years, ever since the owner had locked it up, fleeing Paris at the outbreak of the Second World War.
But itemising its contents, Choppin-Janvry came across a calling card tucked away in a collection of love letters wrapped in coloured ribbons. The letters were addressed to the dead woman's grandmother, the actress Marthe de Florian. At the age of 24, de Florian had been a muse to the Italian painter Giovanni Boldini, an exponent of the "school of Paris" known as the "master of swish" due to his flowing style. The work dated back to 1898 and fetched €2.1 million (Dh10.7m) at auction.
But Choppin-Janvry's story is as old as the history of collecting antiquities. Earlier this week, a family in Buffalo, New York, were astonished to hear that a painting that had lain behind the sofa at their suburban home was very probably a Michelangelo. It had been rolled up and stashed away at the family home of Martin Kober for 27 years, when one of the Kobers' children had knocked it off the wall with a tennis ball. Ironically, the family had noted its resemblance to the work of the Renaissance master, and referred to it as "the Mike".
Infrared examination dated the piece to 1545. If authenticated, it would be the art find of the century, with an estimated price tag of $300million (Dh1.1bn). "It's the nature of the business to come across these finds in the most unexpected places," says Julian Roup, of Bonham's auction house in London. "Things are constantly coming out of the woodwork." Last month, Bonhams was presented with a matching pair of golden gem-encrusted finians, or knobs, from the throne of Tipu Sultan, the Muslim ruler of the Indian province of Mysore in the latter 18th century.
One knob had been in the possession of the same Scottish family for 200 years. The current owner had inherited the piece, along with a large collection of Asian art, from his father, a Scottish earl. "He had no idea what it was - he had been using it as a paperweight," said Roup. Earlier this year, a Gustav Klimt lost during the Second World War fetched £29m at auction at Sotheby's in London. Dated to 1913, the Kirche in Cassone had gone missing during the period of Nazi control in Austria. In September last year, a lost masterpiece by the Renaissance master Ludovico Mazzolino was rediscovered after being left in a packing case for nearly 60 years. The National Gallery in London dated the painting to 1522, and it was estimated at £60,000. Its owner, a British pensioner in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, said it had been put into storage in 1950. He had forgotten he owned it.
Sam Romp, at Christie's auction house, recounted another remarkable sale last week, after a helmet dating back to the Roman empire was unearthed. It had been dug up by a freelance antiquities prospector in a field in Crosby Garret, northern England, and fetched £2.2 million at action. "It was found in a field by a chap with a metal detector," said Romp. "He literally struck gold." Such finds are becoming increasingly common in Islamic art, as well as European, says William Robinson, the senior director of Islamic Art at Christies in London. "There are simply fewer people looking for it," he said. "I come across two or three pieces every few months that should end up in books on the subject."
He recounted the story of a find in Tegernsee, near Munich, at the estate of the Swiss industrialist Theodor Sehmer. Acting on information, Robinson found himself outside an underground tunnel on a freezing winter's day in 2004. He took a crowbar to the partition wall and, smashing his way in, revealed an exquisite collection of Islamic ceramic tiles, walled up in a cavern. "They dated back to the eighth century, and came from as far afield as India, Iran, Turkey and Egypt," he says.
A "purer discovery" came at a Swiss antiques shop in 2003, says Robinson. "The staff had been showing me fairly commonplace stuff, nothing exciting," he says. "But as I was leaving, they pulled out a couple of doors they planned to make into a coffee table," he says. "I was immediately interested." The doors turned out to date from 13th-century Turkey, and were paired with others from the Museum of Berlin. They sold for in excess of £700,000, and are now on exhibit at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha.
"These kind of stories are fantastic for auction houses," Robinson said. "They're good for drumming up pre-sale publicity, and demonstrate an expert's eye for accuracy." * Timur Moon