Paris is one of the most glamorous cities in Europe and Oscar de la Renta one of the most exclusive fashion chains in the world, but while preparing to open a new store they uncovered a level of class and sophistication that their rivals would have killed for.
According to the New York Times, while the building was being renovated Oscar de la Renta chief executive Alex Bolen got an excited call from his architect, Nathalie Ryan.
Ryan had come across something jaw-dropping hidden behind a wall on the second floor of the 19th century building they had acquired on Rue de Marignan, a side street off the luxury Avenue Montaigne which is home to stores from the likes of Louis Vuitton, Dior, Chanel, Valentino and Ralph Lauren.
Bolen hopped on a flight from his New York office and was taken to see what Ryan had discovered: a 10 by 20 foot oil painting filled the entire length of the wall. It showed an elaborately dressed 17th century aristocrat and his courtiers entering the Holy City of Jerusalem — the golden domes of the mosques visible in the background.
The second floor had previously been home to an insurance brokerage, and Ryan’s team had been working flat out to strip out the soulless office interior for something worthy of a high end fashion boutique. Pretty much everything would have to go from the cubicle hell and they envisaged an elegant grand staircase that would link the two floors, creating one big open shop space.
As soon as Ryan — who used to be Dior’s in-house architect — began work, they began to find evidence of the building’s former grandeur. Hidden above the sterile office ceiling, a workman had found a 19th century wood panelled ceiling of 29 recessed squares, eight of them painted with heraldic devices, and all perfectly preserved.
It was beautiful, but not uncommon in buildings of that age in Paris — however the oil painting was something else entirely.
“Oh my God, it was — wow,” Ryan told the New York Times. “Sometimes when you work on castles, you find something, but usually it’s a hidden fireplace, or in Italy, maybe a fresco,” Ms. Ryan said. “But in an apartment? In a store?”
“Everyone freaked out,” said the boutique’s interior designer Jeang Kim. “It was like finding a mummy. I turned off my phone immediately and just looked at it. Nothing like this had ever happened in my work before.”
Demolition was halted and Bolen set about investigating. Through the well-connected de la Renta family who own the company he was able to make contact with members of the distantly related de la Rochefoucauld family — one of whom lived in the building opposite the boutique and another who worked at the Louvre, the world’s largest art museum which is located in the heart of Paris.
Bolen was then introduced to art historian Stephane Pinta of the Cabinet Turquin, an expert in the old masters, which refers to art created by professional artists prior to 18th century, including the Renaissance and Baroque schools of art.
Pinta revealed that the mysterious painting was an oil on canvas by Arnould de Vuez, who worked with the acclaimed Charles le Brun — painter to the French king Louis XIV and interior designer for the royal palace, Château de Versailles. De Vuez didn’t get a chance to mingle with the same high society — he made the wrong enemies and was forced to flee France for Constantinople, now Istanbul, then the capital of the Ottoman Empire.
Pinta discovered a reproduction of the painting in the 1900 book Odyssey of an Ambassador: The Travels of the Marquis de Nointel, 1670-1680. It told the story of Charles Marie François Olier, Marquis de Nointel, who was French ambassador to the court of Ottoman emperor Mehmed VI.
With Franco-Turkish relations at a low, the marquis went to impress and arrived in the company of four battleships and 27 French noblemen. His mission was a modest success — he secured lower customs charges for French merchants to the east and visited Greece, Palestine and Egypt. His obsession with acquiring precious antiquities was less well received, and having racked up enormous debts on behalf of the crown he was ordered home by Louis XIV.
The mystery painting shows the marquis arriving in Jerusalem with great ceremony and pomp as part of this over-indulgent diplomatic tour-turned-shopping spree. In that respect, at least, the Marquis de Nointel is a worthy guardian angel for a fashion boutique where dresses start at around $1,600 and rocket to well over $4,000.
Bolan agreed with the buildings owners to restore the painting — which was darkened by varnish and earlier attempts at restoration — in exchange for it remaining in the Oscar de la Renta boutique for its ten year lease.
Understandably the plan for the store has been modified too, with extra security in place, period furniture being ordered, and treated glass being installed on the windows to prevent sunlight from damaging the painting.
“We’re not going to put a wall of dresses in front,” joked Ryan.