01/23/2015 03:00 EST | Updated 03/25/2015 05:59 EDT

Saskatoon museum learns prized bust once belonged to French emperor

SASKATOON - A museum curator in Saskatoon says a bronze bust that was once auctioned off for US$69 belonged to French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and now calls the city home.

Tracene Harvey says the new information came to light after staff spent more than two decades tracing the bust's history.

"We did know a few things about it, that it was a French Baroque sculpture," she said Friday.

Harvey, who is curator at the Museum of Antiquities at the University of Saskatchewan, said staff eventually discovered it was a bust of the Carthage military commander Hannibal.

She believes it to be the only bronze bust of Hannibal in the world.

It was created by either Francois Girardon or one of his students, Harvey said.

"He was a sculptor in the time of Louis XIV and was one of the key players in the decoration of the Palace of Versailles."

Assistant curator Helanna Miazga said Hannibal was a military icon for Napoleon. In August, she decided to play detective because so little was known about the 17th-century piece.

After poring over documents for hours on end, Miazga said she found a mention of the bust in a memoir written by Napoleon's private secretary.

"When I found that reference, I was very excited," said Miazga, who added that the entry is what confirmed its past ownership.

But there are long gaps in the history of what's known about the sculpture, she said.

"We have heard that it was possibly donated to the Louvre at one point," Miazga said.

During Napoleon's era, it was kept at Chateau de Saint-Cloud outside of Paris. The palace was later destroyed in war.

Miazga said the bust showed up in 1939 in New York, where it was auctioned off for $69.

"They obviously didn't know that it was owned by Napoleon."

The auction catalogue described it simply as "bronze bust of a man with curly hair."

"The places it's been, who had it, who potentially owned it and held it ... it definitely brings a new appreciation for it," she said.

Now staff are trying to understand how it ended up in Saskatoon, where it was donated to the museum in 1988.

"We're also trying to figure out how Napoleon got it," Miazga said.

Harvey said she was excited to learn of the sculpture's interesting past.

"And the fact that it's unique and we have it here in Saskatchewan is wonderful," she said.

The bust is the only original sculpture at the museum.

Harvey said she can't disclose the appraised value of the piece because it's confidential.

— By Clare Clancy in Regina