(NYT NEWS SERVICE).-
A tiny Leonardo da Vinci sketch sold Thursday at Christies for 8.9 million pounds with fees, or about $12.2 million, a record price for a Leonardo drawing at auction.
Leonardos delicate silverpoint study Head of a Bear, measuring just under 3 inches by 3 inches, and thought to date from the early 1480s, was included in Christies summer Exceptional Sale of high-value historical works of art assembled from a range of collecting categories.
Estimated to sell for 8 million pounds to 12 million pounds, or $11 million to $16.5 million, the drawing was bought by a single bid from an as-yet-unidentified buyer in the auction room. There was no competition from any telephone or internet bidders. The final price of $12.2 million was marginally better than the $11.5 million given in 2001 for Leonardos slightly larger silverpoint study Horse and rider, the previous auction high for a drawing by the artist.
These prices are absurd, said Jean-Luc Baroni, a dealer in museum-quality old master drawings, based in London and Paris. Baroni said that if he had been asked to price the work, he would have valued it at about $2 million. Youre buying a name. Its nothing to do with the love of drawings.
OK, its a Leonardo. But its so tiny, he said. Its a postage stamp.
The drawing might have been small it is about the size of a standard square Post-it note but the sale Thursday was viewed by many experts as possibly the last opportunity to buy an original Leonardo drawing from a private collection.
Prices for virtually any work associated with this most famous of Italian Renaissance artists have soared since the astounding $450.3 million given in 2017 for the Salvator Mundi. In June, Christies sold a 17th-century copy of the Mona Lisa for 2.9 million euros, or about $3.4 million. On Thursday, just hours before Christies sale of the drawing, Sothebys sold what may well be a 20th-century copy of the Mona Lisa for 378,000 pounds at a day auction of old masters. It had been estimated at 8,000-12,000 pounds.
Leonardo is the magic name, said Anthony Crichton-Stuart, director of the London dealership Agnews, who had been following Sothebys day sale.
Leonardo was known to create composite animals in his art by combining elements from different species. Scholars have associated the drawing of a bear that sold Thursday with the famously animated head of an ermine in Leonardos celebrated Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, dating from about 1490, in the National Museum in Krakow, Poland.
It was a very beautiful, very poetic drawing, said Stephen Ongpin, a specialist dealer in old master drawings, based in London. What I liked was the tenderness of the depiction. Its not like a scientific drawing. But it was small. Ongpin said that he thought Christies valuation had been correct, given that the estimate reflected a record price for a Leonardo drawing set 20 years ago.
Ongpin and other dealers identified Christies anonymous seller as American billionaire Thomas S. Kaplan, best known for his touring collection of paintings by Rembrandt. Kaplan acquired the drawing from London dealer Johnny van Haeften in 2008, as indicated in Christies cataloging. Kaplan declined to confirm that his was the family trust making the sale.
Ongpin said that Christies had been looking for the Salvator Mundi effect by offering the drawing in its evening Exceptional Sale, which appeals to wealthy collectors of trophy objects, rather than at a specialist old masters auction.
There are one or two private collectors and one or two museums who could have bought a drawing like this, Ongpin said. But Christies were also looking for a buyer who doesnt collect drawings and would be entranced by the name.
The sale raised questions about the future of another drawing by the Renaissance master, that one owned by a retired doctor in France.
The former doctor, an octogenarian known in legal documents simply as Jean B., is hoping to add the work to the small list of Leonardo drawings from private collections offered on the open market.
Back in 2016, Paris auctioneers Tajan identified a double-sided pen-and-ink drawing that the doctor owned as a major Leonardo discovery. Widely accepted as a Leonardo by specialist scholars, the 7 1/2-by-5-inch sheet, showing the martyrdom of St. Sebastian on one side and scientific sketches on the other, was declared a national treasure by the French state, which was permitted to offer to buy it at a fair market price during a 30-month period during which its export was banned.
But the sensational Salvator Mundi sale in 2017 made the owner of the drawing revise his expectations, according to Rodica Seward, owner of Tajan.
Seward said that the owner decided to cancel the auction planned for June 2019, at which Tajan hoped to achieve a price of at least 30 million euros, or about $34 million, for the double-sided drawing. That July, the French state offered to buy the sheet for 10 million euros, or about $11.8 million, just before the certificate refusing its export was set to expire. The offer was rejected, and the export ban remains in place after having been renewed.
The drawing has now become the subject of a protracted legal dispute, in which the owner and his family are seeking to lift the export restriction, which would allow them to sell the Leonardo on the international market. On Wednesday, a Paris court adjourned the case until Oct. 27.
If that little Christies drawing is worth $12.2 million, what is the St. Sebastian worth? Seward said in an interview. Who can buy it in France if you cant export it? Who knows? she added. The drawing is in limbo, and is in our safe.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times