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Red chalk drawing of a male nude by Gian Lorenzo Bernini sold for €1.55m (£1.34m) by Actéon. Image copyright: Artcento

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The price far outstripped the estimate of €30,000-50,000 and set an auction record for a work on paper by the artist.

The 22 x 16¾in (56 x 42.5cm) drawing, in red chalk with white highlights on paper, depicts a study of a naked man, known in French as an académie.

The unpublished work was discovered by Actéon (25% buyer’s premium), the same auction house that sold an Old Master panel painting by Cimabue in 2019 for a hammer price of €19.5m.

The Bernini drawing has come from a private collection in Compiègne and was offered on March 20 by Actéon with the Old Master drawings specialists Cabinet de Bayser as experts.

The drawing had an attribution to the French sculptor Pierre Puget in a cartouche on the mount. “Very quickly, we concluded that this French sculptor from the second half of the 17th century could not be the author of the drawing,” said Patrick de Bayser, adding that this allowed them to follow Bernini’s trail. After lengthy research, the Cabinet de Bayser was able to attribute the drawing to Bernini, an attribution confirmed by the Bernini specialist Ann Sutherland Harris.

Drawings such as these, studying figures from different angles, were used by sculptors to aid them in their work. It has similarities to académies of similar dimensions in the Uffizi in Florence and the Teylers Museum in the Netherlands.

While not a preparatory drawing, it can be compared with Bernini’s allegorical figures of river gods on his famous fountain in the Piazza Navona in Rome.

Sale day competition

On the sale day there was bidding online and from nine phone bidders, “two-thirds non-French,” said Actéon’s Dominique Le Coënt-de Beaulieu. The battle started on the phones then an internet bidder joined in the action with bidding progressing at increments of €50,000 up to €1.5m. The final successful bid of €1.55m came from a US buyer via the phone.

Drawings by Bernini are rare at auction. The previous highest price for a Bernini drawing is the $190,000 at Sotheby’s New York in January 2014 for a red and black chalk portrait of Ottaviano Castelli (source: Artprice by Artmarket).

£1 = €1.16