A nude young man (after Masaccio) surrounded by two figures is one of only a small number of drawings by Michelangelo still remaining in private hands. Christie’s has estimated it ‘in the region of €30m’ for its sale in Paris on May 18.
Part of a private French collection, the 13 x 7 7/8 in (33 x 20cm) pen and ink sketch sold at an auction at the Hôtel Drouot in Paris in 1907 as a work of the school of Michelangelo. However, in 2019, it was identified as an autograph work by Furio Rinaldi, then a specialist in Christie’s department of Old Master Drawings. The attribution to the High Renaissance master has been supported by Paul Joannides, emeritus professor of art history at Cambridge University and author of the complete catalogues of drawings by Michelangelo and his school in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and the Musée du Louvre.
Following its rediscovery, the drawing was designated a French National Treasure which prevented it from being exported from France for 30 months, giving time for cultural bodies to raise funds to buy the picture. The recent expiry of this time-limit has meant that the French government has now removed this designation and has granted an export licence, enabling it to be offered “without any restriction to collectors worldwide” according to Christie’s.
The auction house now plans to exhibit it in Hong Kong and New York prior to the Paris sale.
The drawing has been dated to the end of the 15th century, making it an early work by Michelangelo, with Christie’s stating it is “probably the earliest surviving nude study by the artist”.
The central figure, conceived in two shades of brown ink, is based on the shivering man from The Baptism of the Neophytes, one of the famous frescoes in the Santa Maria del Carmine Church in Florence painted by the early Italian Renaissance master Masaccio (1401-1428). Several other studies by Michelangelo after Masaccio are known, including a drawing at the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung in Munich and one at the Albertina in Vienna. A Michelangelo drawing after a fresco by Giotto is also in the Louvre.
In the current drawing, the other two figures behind the shivering man were added later by the artist and are unrelated to Masaccio’s original composition.
If it sells, the sketch at Christie’s will likely become one of, if not the, most expensive drawings ever sold. That record is currently held by a black chalk drawing by Raphael, Head of an Apostle which came from Chatsworth and made a hammer price of £26.5m at Sotheby’s in 2012. Christie’s sold another Raphael drawing, Head of a Muse, for £26m in 2009.
The current auction record for a Michelangelo was set at Christie’s back in 2000 when Study for the Risen Christ, a work formerly owned by Sir Brinsley Ford sold at £7.4m. A year later Sotheby’s sold another Michelangelo sketch Study of a Mourning Woman for £5.4m
In the meantime, another important Old Master sold recently in France is likely to be blocked from export after the Louvre announced its intention to raise funds to acquire it.
Jean Siméon Chardin’s (1699-1779) Basket of Wild Strawberries from 1761 sold at an Artcurial in Paris for €20.5m (£17.425m) – €24.4 (£20.7m) with premium – and was bought by the New York dealer Adam Williams. However the Louvre’s announcement means that an advisory commission will now meet and will likely recommend that it be classed as a National Treasure. Under French law, it would then be subject to an export block for 30 months giving the Louvre the opportunity to seek the financial backing to buy it.