A 20-year-old record for the most expensive drawing by Leonardo da Vinci fell at Christie’s London, where Head of a Bear, a rare petite silver point drawing on pink-beige prepared paper, fetched £8.9 million ($12.2 million) on an estimate of £8 million to 12 million ($11 million to $16.6 million)
The house held the Renaissance master’s record for works on paper since July 10, 2001, with the £8.1 million ($11.5 million) sale of Horse and Rider, according to the Artnet Price Database.
Measuring just two-and-three-quarters inches square and dating from the first half of the 1480s, Head of a Bear was the highlight of Christie’s £19.5 million ($27 million) “Exceptional Sale,” which featured mostly decorative art. (The top three lots also included a £1.7 million [$2.3 million] manuscript signed by Isaac Newton and a £1.9 million [$2.7 million] 17th-century Charles I silver inkstand.)
“These prices are absurd,” Jean-Luc Baroni, an Old Master drawing dealer, told the New York Times. “OK, it’s a Leonardo. But it’s so tiny.”
The work was consigned by the New York collectors Thomas and Daphne Recanati Kaplan, whose art holdings, known as the Leiden Collection, focus primarily Dutch Golden Age painting holdings.
They acquired Head of a Bear privately in 2008 through London dealer Johnny van Haeften, but it was something of a misfit for their collection, which contains no other Italian Renaissance drawings.
One of just eight Leonardo drawings known to be in private hands, Head of a Bear is part of a series of small-scale animal studies the artist is believed to have done in the early 1480s.
“It’s a huge rarity in itself,” van Haeften, now director of exhibitions for the Leiden Collection, told Artnet News before the sale, “but also a very charming drawing.”
The artwork has an impressive provenance, having once belonged to Thomas Lawrence, a late 18-century British painter and collector of Old Master drawings, and Norman Robert Colville, a British captain. It has been shown at institutions including the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, and the National Gallery in London.
Though heavily marketed by Christie’s, the offering didn’t incite fireworks, selling without much ado on a single bid from a couple in the sparsely seated King Street salesroom. Still, it handily outstripped the last time it changed hands at the auction house, when it sold for just £2.50 ($12.10) in 1860.
The price also fell well short of the record for an Old Master drawing, set in 2009, when Raphael’s Head of a Muse, a study for a Vatican fresco commissioned by Pope Julius II, fetched close to $49 million, also at Christie’s London.
“Small but magnificent,” Stijn Alsteens, head of Christie’s Old Master drawings department, told CNN. “[Head of a Bear] will undoubtedly be one of the last drawings by Leonardo to ever come to the market.”
A much larger, recently authenticated Leonardo drawing of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian was set to come to market at French auction house Tajan in 2016, but France declared the artwork a national treasure and issued an export ban.
The work, which was expected to sell for as much as €30 million to 60 million ($34 million to 68 million), is currently ensnarled in legal proceedings between the owner, a doctor identified as Jean B., and the auction house.
Additional reporting by Judd Tully.
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