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Entered by a private vendor and last seen on the auction market in 1963, these small pen and brown ink drawings, shown right, each measuring just 51/2in by 2in (13.5 x 5cm) high, were preparatory studies for the figures of Saints John the Evangelist and Baptist for El Greco’s monumental (and still extant) High Altarpiece of the Cistercian convent of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo, completed in 1579.

The extreme rarity of these drawings and the art historical prestige of El Greco’s name would have seemed to have guaranteed plenty of interest, even if the pre-sale estimate of £200,000-400,000 inevitably whittled away the realistic number of potential buyers.

But, as specialist in charge Marianne Joannides discovered when she tried to market the drawings, El Greco is not known as a draughtsman and the diminutive size of the drawings and damaged condition severely compromised their commercial appeal.

At the sale itself, there was no interest in the room and they were knocked down to a single telephone bid of £180,000 from a Continental drawings dealer who was apparently buying for his own collection.

“I was not displeased with the price, but I’d hoped they might have gone higher,” commented Ms Joannides after the sale.
drawings, rather than
commercial images. “When people are spending that kind of money on a drawing they want virtuoso pieces with obvious wall power. It was very difficult estimating them, but ultimately the market spoke.”