You don’t get a “new” Michelangelo every day in the art market. So it is astonishing news to hear Christie’s announce the sale of a previously unknown drawing by Michelangelo, A nude young man (after Masaccio) surrounded by two figures, executed early in his career. One of the very few drawings by Michelangelo still in private hands, it will be auctioned May 18th in Paris at the Old Masters and 19th Century Art: Paintings, Drawings and Sculptures sale.
The drawing is offered without a published estimate which allows the specialists more leeway in their conversations with collectors leading up to the auction. But the whisper number is €30 million.
The work comes from a private collection and was previously under an export ban as a French National Treasure, this designation would have given the French Government 30 months to raise the money to acquire the work. The French are currently trying to do the same with a €43 million Caillebotte painting. That might explain why the French recently granted the Michelangelo an export licence, opening the way to an auction. First recognised as a Michelangelo in 2019 by Furio Rinaldi, then a specialist in Christie’s department of Old Master Drawings, the work has since been supported by Paul Joannides, Emeritus Professor of Art History at Cambridge University and author of the complete catalogues of drawings by Michelangelo. The work was originally sold in 1907 at the Hôtel Drouot in Paris as “school of Michelangelo.”
This drawing is probably the earliest surviving nude study by Michelangelo. It dates from the end of the 15th Century when Michelangelo was a young man. The image reproduces the shivering man depicted in the Baptism of the Neophytes, one of the famous frescoes from the Santa Maria del Carmine Church in Florence by the early Italian Renaissance master Masaccio (1401-1428). There are several other studies by Michelangelo after Masaccio, including a drawing at the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung in Munich and one at the Albertina in Vienna. There is also a drawing after a fresco by Giotto at the Louvre.
The rarity of portable works by Michelangelo means there are few meaningful auction records to guide the pricing of the artist’s work. The record auction price for a Michelangelo is $12.3 million. But the sale took place in 2000, a remote era in terms of pricing.
The $33 million whisper number is based upon the recent sales of drawings by comparable artists. Here’s how Christie’s presents that information:
The sale of this large and well-preserved drawing takes its place among the ranks of other major works on paper offered at auction by Christie's, including Raphael’s Head of a Muse, sold in London for more than £29 million ($38 million) in December 2009; Leonardo da Vinci’s exquisite Head of a bear, which achieved almost £9 million ($11,8 million) in 2021; and a rare nude male study by Michelangelo, which sold in London on July 4 2000 for more than £8 million ($12 million), setting the world auction record for a work by the artist.