For devotees of rummage sales, vintage shops, and eBay, the dream is clear: Make a score worthy of an emotional shock take on Antiques Roadshow. Last year the opportunity came for Australian art dealer Leigh Capel, and he did not miss his moment. Capel was scouring eBay for interesting portraits to display at his Sydney gallery, Belle Epoque Fine Art, when he came across an authentic miniature portrait of Josephine Bonaparte — one of ten rare artifacts stolen in a 2014 museum heist — for the bargain price of $250.
“I don’t usually buy miniatures, but it was of such high quality and of the age that it would have been painted during Napoleon’s lifetime,” Capel told ABC Radio Melbourne. Capel’s gambit paid off, and in March he returned the portrait to its home at the Briars Homestead, a historic house and heritage museum in Mount Martha on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula.
Other objects taken in the theft included locks of Napoleon’s hair, a silver inkwell set with three gold Napoleons (which were allegedly in the pocket of the exiled emperor when he died), and a portrait of the man himself, which was a match for the recovered portrait of the empress.
The work is finely detailed, hand-painted on porcelain, and signed “René” — believed to be René Théodore Berthon, a French artist popular during the First Empire period, between 1804 and 1815. The collection of Napoleon artifacts and memorabilia housed in the Briars Homestead was put together by Dame Mable Brooks, the great-granddaughter of Alexander Balcombe, who settled in Australia in 1846 and “sat on Napoleon’s knee as a little boy,” according to a 2014 statement from museum coordinator Steve York.
“Really they’re priceless because they can’t be replaced,” York told ABC Australia at the time of the theft. “We’re quite distraught. Irreplaceable.”
Now, eight years later, the museum can celebrate the return of one these stolen objects, which will go back on display at the Briars Homestead when it reopens to the public following renovations later this year. In the meantime, the portrait of Josephine will be on view at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery.
For Capel’s part, he seems happy to have hit that ultimate achievement for antiques enthusiasts: finding a treasure.
“I come across artworks that have been misattributed or they’ve lost their stories or their labels, and that’s part of the fun of my job [to track the stories down],” he told ABC News. “I feel a little bit like Indiana Jones … Now I have the opportunity to bring joy back to that community.”