Some works of art transcend boundaries of categorisation. The celebrated black chalk studies of heads by the great Italian renaissance master known as Raphael (1483-1520) are among them.
These closely observed and highly finished preparatory studies, made so that the artist could perfect nuances of pose, gesture and expression – as well as the lighting and modelling of the figures in his paintings – have a power, an intimacy and a tender beauty that continue to speak across centuries and cultures.
On December 5, Sotheby’s London is offering Raphael’s black chalk “Head of a Young Apostle”. It is a study for a figure in his late masterpiece the “Transfiguration”, an altarpiece commissioned in 1516 by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, later Pope Clement VII, and now in the Vatican Museum. Numerous preparatory drawings were made for this important commission, 17 of which survive. They range from rapid compositional sketches and small studies of nude or clothed figures to “auxiliary cartoons” of the heads of principal protagonists such as this.
The fall of light is key, given the dawn setting of the Transfiguration – the moment when Christ is metamorphosed on Mount Tabor and becomes radiant, and the conduit between heaven and earth. The dramatic light gives this head a sculptural monumentality, and the artist makes brilliant use of blank paper to add a further dimension to his range of tones. His innovative and masterly technique brilliantly combines precision and painterly suggestion.
This drawing comes from one of the world’s greatest drawings collections, assembled from 1688 onwards by William Cavendish, 2nd Duke of Devonshire, at Chatsworth. When a comparable Raphael cartoon head for another apostle in the “Transfiguration” from the same collection was consigned to Christie’s in 1984, it became the most expensive Old Master drawing ever sold at auction.
Until that evening, the record had been held since 1978 when a Dürer drawing from the fabled Von Hirsch collection changed hands for £704,000. But in 1984 five drawings from the Chatsworth collection broke the £1m barrier – the Raphael head achieving a starry £3.5m. New auction records were established for 36 of the 39 artists represented.
The reason was simple. This was, back then, believed to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dip into this most illustrious of collections (we now know better, given that the last duke sold a further 16 drawings in 1987). Moreover, there was the J Paul Getty Museum to focus the mind of every serious drawings collector and curator. Since its debut in the market in 1981, it had been busy spending the largest drawings acquisition budget in the world. This gave people the confidence to buy, and to sell. In 1991, for instance, 64 drawings were lured out of another old aristocratic collection at Holkham Hall.
Despite its deep pockets, the Getty ended up the under-bidder on the Raphael. The prize was won by Barbara Piasecka Johnson, a collector who had never before bought an Old Master drawing. Will another new trophy hunter have set their sights on this second Raphael?
Even when the Getty was at its most acquisitive, it was competing with extremely rich US collectors such as Ian Woodner and John Gaines. The current force at the top end of the market is New York financier Leon Black, who paid £29.2m for yet another Raphael auxiliary cartoon, “Head of a Muse” at Christie’s in 2009 – which is the current record for an Old Master drawing.
In today’s phenomenally rich, masterpiece-obsessed global art market, it is anybody’s guess what the Raphael might make or where it might go – New York, Qatar, Russia or China? Revealingly, the buyer of the last Michelangelo drawing to come up at auction, at Christie’s last summer, was Asian.
US institutions such as the Getty, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the National Gallery in Washington and the Art Institute of Chicago continue to be major players in this market and perform a crucial role in advising private collectors. Unusually, a significant number of collectors in this field – and dealers too – are women.
The constant lament of them all is how difficult it is to find high-quality material. That explains why many have embraced “Master” drawings that cover anything from the 19th century to contemporary works on paper.
The truth is that great drawings – and new discoveries – keep turning up. An example is the Michelangelo drawing found in an album at Castle Howard that made £5.9m at Sotheby’s in 2001. Then there was a sparkling and previously unknown Venetian view by Canaletto found in France that sold in the same rooms this July for a record £1.9m, while the likes of a long lost pen-and-ink Hercules by the 17th-century Bolognese master Guercino found in Belgium takes a bow at Stephen Ongpin’s exhibition of Master Drawings in New York (from January 26 to February 3 next year).
Familiar tours de force continue their peregrinations around the market. On January 31 in New York, Christie’s presents a delectable Claude Lorrain landscape on blue paper that had previously belonged to John Gaines (estimate $500,000- $800,000). It also presents French drawings including a celebrated Ingres pencil double portrait ($1.5m-$2m), as well as a Géricault double-sided sheet of studies for “Raft of the Medusa” ($300,000-$400,000). Sotheby’s, meanwhile, is unveiling long unseen drawings from the estate of Florentine dealer Giancarlo Baroni.
For those prepared to look, read and get to grips with questions of attribution and condition, Master drawings offers a rich and infinitely various seam of material. Paris offers regular entry-level Old Master drawing auctions, while most estimates in Christie’s South Kensington December 6 sale range from £400 to £1,500. Look out, too, for the Christmas shows staged in London by the likes of Jean-Luc Baroni, Katrin Bellinger at Colnaghi and Stephen Ongpin.