NEW YORK – Early in my career I had the great pleasure of discovering a very large leather-bound three-volume book titled Art Treasures of America. It was published in 1879 in Philadelphia and written by an artist named Earl Shinn, who went by the pseudonym Edward Strahan. Shinn basically chronicled a “Who’s Who” in American collecting in the decades following the Civil War, featuring such luminaries as Vanderbilt, Belmont, Stewart, Morgan and Astor. His goal was to visit those collections that he deemed the most important – he wrote vivid descriptions, compiled extensive checklists and illustrated the top paintings in rich photogravures scattered throughout the three volumes. The book had a limited run; an immense volume is housed at the Frick Art Reference Library in New York, which is where I first used it. About ten years ago, I found a copy on eBay, which now graces my own personal library. 

Edward Strahan, Art Treasures of America, Philadelphia, 1879, three volumes.

Whenever we offer a painting that appears in Strahan, it is my job to pull the heavy tomes off my bookshelf at home and find the exact page references to be listed under Literature in our catalogue notes; this saves us a trip to the Frick. When I do this, it never ceases to amaze me how many major 19th-century European paintings ended up in these early collections, and of course, being in the auction business, I always wonder what happened to them. One image has always stood out: it depicts the most extraordinary painting of a bustling Paris flower market by a French artist named Marie François Firmin Girard. I have probably sold a total of twenty paintings by Firmin Girard over the years, but nothing could compare to this picture. Every time I saw the photogravure, I would ask myself, “What ever happened to this picture? Where are you?” Strahan viewed it in the collection of a rich New Yorker, Theron Butler; I always remembered this because my brother’s name is Theron, and I have never heard of anyone else with this unusual first name.

Photogravure of Firmin-Girard’s Le Quai aux Fleurs, from Edward Strahan’s Art Treasures in America, 1879.

Fast forward the story. I was reading my email in early December, and one message stood out with the subject line ”Marie François Firmin-Girard (French 1838 -1921).” When I opened the attachment, a colour photograph of Firmin Girard’s long-lost Paris flower market appeared on my screen! It turns out that following the sale of Theron Butler’s collection in 1910, the painting eventually made its way to the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Charles S. Whitehouse; Charles Whitehouse was the grandson of Charles Crocker of San Francisco. I am delighted to say that its next appearance will be at Sotheby’s New York where it is a highlight of our 19th Century European Art sale on 9 May. 

Marie-François Firmin Girard, Le Quai aux Fleurs, signed Firmin Girard. Estimate $300,000–500,000. To be included in the 19th Century European Art sale at Sotheby’s New York, 9 May 2014.

We now know that Firmin Girard’s Paris flower market was a star of the Paris Salon of 1876. Contemporary reviews recount that the painting was so popular that it was difficult to see because of the crowds standing in front of it, marvelling at the remarkable detail – elegantly dressed Parisians only rivalled by the variety of colourful flowers filling the vendor’s carts. One of our favorite details is the marchand de coco, or the man with the tall apparatus on his back, which dispensed a cool drink of licorice and lemon flavoured water into the silver cups dangling from his waist.

Pauquet, Marchand de Coco, circa 1841.

My search is now over. It reminds me of that early scene in the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz (one of my all-time favourite movies) when Dorothy’s monochromatic world is vibrantly transformed when she opens the door of her house that fell on the Wicked Witch of the East and enters the colourful world of Munchkinland!