Mantel masterpiece moves from rubbish pile to the MFA

This undated photo provided by interior designer Heidi Pribell shows an 1805 marble mantelpiece with two female caryatids in high-waisted Roman costume flanking the fireplace opening and supporting a lintel with a projecting central tablet carved with classical goddesses. When Pribell spotted a dust-covered mantelpiece in the basement of a client's newly purchased home, it was the start of a long relationship. (Jeffery Dodge Rogers/Heidi Pribell via AP)

When interior designer Heidi Pribell spotted a dust-covered mantelpiece in the basement of a client’s newly purchased home, it was the start of a long relationship.

The ornate white marble mantelpiece, with two caryatids flanking each side, was sitting amid rubble and construction debris. But Pribell, a Boston-based designer and antique dealer, convinced her client the mantelpiece was worth keeping. That was in 1999.

Fast forward to 2011, and Pribell purchased the mantelpiece — roughly 6 feet wide and 4 feet high — from the client. Her “obsession” with the piece led her down a historical rabbit hole in search of its provenance. And this year, more than two decades after the basement discovery, Pribell sold the once dilapidated mantel to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for an undisclosed sum.

“It was no secret, I adored it,” she says.

It’s the kind of story that makes television shows like “American Pickers” and “Antiques Roadshow” so popular. Many people are looking for the next undiscovered masterpiece.

This undated photo provided by interior designer Heidi Pribell shows Pribell unfixing the 1805 marble mantlepiece from the wall of a home in Boston. Pribell sold the mantlepiece to the Museum of Fine Arts later. When Pribell spotted a dust-covered mantelpiece in the basement of a client's newly purchased home, it was the start of a long relationship.(Rhea Nawar/Heidi Pribell via AP)

“It’s more common than you think,” says Ezra Shales, a professor of art history at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Once-popular works often get thrown out when society’s tastes change, he says.

“The cycle of forgetting and then remembering our history is part of the cycle of art history,” says Shales.

As a trained antique dealer, Pribell knew how to qualify items in terms of good, better, best. (Museum-quality artworks are, in general, sold in excellent condition with original fixtures and the like.) This piece, Pribell says, was “exquisite.”

“It was all about the quality and depth of the carving,” she says.

The mantelpiece also had a story befitting a museum-quality artwork. The Carrera marble mantelpiece, crafted in 1805 in Italy, had stayed in the same building on Joy and Beacon Streets, across from Boston Common, through three different owners.

This undated photo provided by interior designer Heidi Pribell shows a caryatid on an 1805 marble mantelpiece. When Pribell spotted a dust-covered mantelpiece in the basement of a client's newly purchased home, it was the start of a long relationship. (Jeffery Dodge Rogers/Heidi Pribell via AP)

It was originally commissioned by diplomat and art importer Thomas Appleton, who acquired it for wealthy apothecary Dr. John Joy, whose mansion was on Joy Street. During Appleton’s time as a rising diplomat in Europe, he imported many artworks to the United States, including a bust of George Washington that’s in the White House.

“He was a true visionary,” Pribell says. “He was so sure of his tastes.”