Leonardo drawing
Head of a Bear by Leonardo da Vinci – £7.5m at Christie’s.

Enjoy unlimited access: just £1 for 12 weeks

Subscribe now

The works represent two of only eight Leonardo drawings known to be in private hands outside the British Royal Collection and the Devonshire Collections at Chatsworth.

The diminutive but much anticipated head of a bear came to Christie’s from the Leiden Collection – the private collection of Old Masters formed by American investor and asset manager Thomas S Kaplan and his wife Daphne Recanati Kaplan. They bought it from London dealer Johnny van Haeften in 2008.

Estimated at £8m-12m, it sold to a bidder in the room at £7.5m (£8.86m including premium).

The sum was marginally above the £7.4m (£8.1m including premium) for Horse and Rider, a preparatory study for Leonardo’s unfinished masterpiece The Adoration of the Magi (now in the Uffizi), that also sold at Christie’s in July 2001 and held the previous auction record for a drawing by the artist.

Believed to have been drawn from life, the 2¾in (7cm) square sketch was executed in silverpoint on pink-beige prepared paper and sits neatly within Leonardo’s extensive body of drawings made from nature. Comparable works include a study of two cats and a dog in the British Museum, a double-sided sheet with studies of a dog’s paws in the National Galleries of Scotland and a study of a walking bear at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

In terms of its earlier provenance, the drawing was once in the collection of artist Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) and then passed to his dealer (and major creditor) Samuel Woodburn, who sold it at Christie’s in 1860 for £2.50.

It was later owned by British collector Captain Norman Robert Colville (1893- 1974) who also owned Raphael’s drawing Head of a Muse, a work that sold at Christie’s in 2009 for £26m.

Export dispute

Meanwhile, a court in Paris will decide the fate of the other Leonardo drawing, Study for a Saint Sebastian in a Landscape.

The owner of the work, a retired French doctor known only as Jean B, is seeking to overturn an export ban after reportedly rejecting a €10m offer from the French cultural ministry.

The drawing was declared a national treasure in 2018 after auction house Tajan announced it would be offered with a €15m-20m estimate. This meant it could not be sold for 30 months to allow a national museum the opportunity to acquire it. The Louvre is understood to be keen to add it to its collection.

Jean B received it as a gift from his father for passing his medical exams in 1959. With its identity unknown at the time, he had filed it away in a box until taking it to Tajan in 2016.

Leonardo drawing

Study for a Saint Sebastian in a Landscape, a double-sided Leonardo drawing valued at €15m-20m but which has been blocked from export in France.

The double-sided sheet depicts Saint Sebastian tied to the trunk of a tree to one side and two scientific sketches of candle light to the other.

Tajan's head of Old Masters Thaddée Prate believed it was by a significant master and, after initially valuing it between €20,000-30,000, decided to consult the drawings expert Patrick de Bayser. After assessing the work, de Bayser attributed the diminutive 71/2in x 5in (19 x 13cm) drawing to Leonardo.

With the sketch executed in brown ink using a quill by a left-handed artist, and diagrams and notes about light and shade present in mirror writing to the back, the attribution was later described as “absolutely solid” by Dr Carmen Bambach, curator of prints and drawings at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

The case is over the export ban is being heard at the Paris Civil Court.

In another legal twist however, the French culture minister Roselyne Bachelot has also filed a legal claim alleging that the drawing could have once been stolen from a public collection, thereby giving the state an ownership right.

Separately Tajan and Jean B are also involved in a legal dispute with the former doctor alleging he had not given consent for Tajan to auction the work and had only learnt about the auction through the press.

This has prompted the auction house to sue Jean B for breach of contract and seek compensation for the work it has already undertaken for its client.

Olivier Baratelli, Jean B’s lawyer, described the French government’s handling of the Leonardo discovery as “catastrophic” according to France 24. “A culture ministry worthy of its name would have ensured the French state acquire such a drawing,” he said.