Succession of sales marks strong season for drawings by Old Masters

Feast and famine define the art market. A sale season, or even several in succession, may offer meagre pickings but the parched earth can suddenly turn green and lush, bearing extraordinary fruit.

This is such a year for Old Master drawings. Among the offerings at this summer’s London Art Week are the rarest of quattrocento Florentine drawings; outstanding Dutch and Flemish sheets from the Renaissance to the Golden Age; and fine French drawings. At its core are consignments from the estates of two very different collectors: Barbara Piasecka Johnson and IQ van Regteren Altena. Their catalogues include the names of some of the greatest of all draughtsmen: from Botticelli to Leonardo, Rubens to Rembrandt.

IQ van Regteren Altena was a collector of the old school, a scholar and connoisseur who honed his eye over a lifetime. When not serving as director of the Print Room at the Rijksmuseum, or keeper at the Teylers Museum in Haarlem, he amassed a private collection totalling some 1,100 drawings. It is one of the last great collections of its type. Johnson, on the other hand, had a rather higher profile as a rags-to-riches Polish chambermaid who married J Seward Johnson and then battled to keep her vast, disputed Johnson & Johnson inheritance.

The very first drawing she bought was a Raphael, purchased at Christie’s in 1984 during the first sale of drawings from the historic collections of Chatsworth House. Johnson outbid the J Paul Getty Museum to pay £3.5m for “Head of a Young Apostle”, an auction record for any drawing. That sale was to transform the hitherto sleepy backwater of the Old Master drawings market; when the Raphael was offered again two years ago, it changed hands for another world record: £29.7m.

Johnson subsequently acquired three more trophy Italian Renaissance drawings: a Botticelli and two drapery studies traditionally attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. These will return to Sotheby’s on July 9 for an evening sale of Old Master and British Paintings.

Drawings by Botticelli are true rarities. Apart from the illustrations, in outline only, for Dante’s Divine Comedy, only 12 are known to survive. All but Johnson’s are in museums, and no other Botticelli drawing has appeared on the market since the 19th century. Yet Vasari tells us that Botticelli was a prolific draughtsman, executing so many drawings of great mastery and judgment that “for some time after his death all the craftsmen strove to obtain some of them”.

‘Study for a Seated St Joseph’ (c1480) by Botticelli (Photograph: Sotheby’s)

Perhaps their constant reuse explains why most have perished. This drawing is not one of his refined evocations of feminine beauty, like the exquisite “Allegory of Abundance” in the British Museum but is, instead, a late study for a sculptural, seated St Joseph, resting his head on one hand as he gravely contemplates the baby Jesus. It is a preparatory sketch for a largely autograph tondo of the nativity at Buscot Park, dating from the late 1480s.

Estimated to fetch £1m-£1.5m, the drawing had cost Johnson $80,000 in 1988. This may not seem a great deal but Cristiana Romalli of Sotheby’s suspects that, although scholars at the time believed it to be an autograph work, the drawing had previously only been published as “workshop” or “circle of Botticelli”. “People don’t like uncertainty,” she assures me. “We see this all the time.”

What, then, will they make of the drapery studies? Of extraordinary art-historical significance and compelling beauty, they belong to a group of some 16 similar studies drawn in tempera with a brush on prepared fine linen. Since the 17th century, they have been considered to be the work of either Dürer or Leonardo. The reason for the latter is straightforward enough: Vasari tells us that as an apprentice in the studio of the sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio, the young Leonardo invented the technique of making models of figures in clay, over which he would lay soft pieces of cloth, dipped in clay and arranged in deep, sculptural folds. He would then patiently draw them in black and white on fine cloth or linen. The subtly nuanced drawings that resulted are both painterly and sculptural, their monumentality often enhanced by a dramatic light source.

Johnson bought both drawings as Leonardos in 1989, paying another world record figure for the kneeling figure, at £3.7m. Since then, however, scholarly opinion has been divided, and some experts consider the 16 drawings to be the work of different artists, active in Verrocchio’s workshop in the late 1460s and 1470s – including the master himself.

Sotheby’s is correctly sitting on the fence, focusing instead on the hothouse atmosphere and the creative brilliance of the workshop’s painters and sculptors. The only two of the 16 remaining in private hands, the drawings have been attributed to “Workshop of Verrocchio” and given an estimate of £1.5m-£2m each. We wait to see how much is in a name. Will great prices be paid only for something to which one can securely attach a name, like a label to a handbag?

There is no mistaking the hand – literally – of Hendrick Goltzius in the first of the four van Regteren Altena dispersals, coming to Christie’s on July 10. For here is one of two bravura drawings, from around 1588, of the artist’s famed right hand, larger than life-size and monumental in its grandeur.

It is one of a group of bold, cross-hatched pen-and-ink drawings that Goltzius made in imitation of his engravings. Karel van Mander, the Vasari of the north, explains that the artist fell into a fire when he was a year old and badly burnt his hands, resulting in a fusion of his tendons. Although the artist was to use this drawing as a basis for a hand of St Jude, it is tempting to see this choice of subject, and its virtuoso treatment, as a proud testimony to his technical skill despite his deformity.

A preparatory drawing for Rubens’s ‘Samson and Delilah’ (c1609) (Photograph: Christie’s)

Here, too, is the only known preparatory drawing for Rubens’s “Samson and Delilah” from the National Gallery in London (estimated to reach £1.5m-£2.5m). In its regular drawings sale on the same day, Christie’s is also offering Francesco Guardi’s gloriously watery and evanescent chalk, pen and wash view of the Grand Canal and the Ca’ Pesaro at £1.5m-£2m – arguably even more delectable than the Guardi painting (“Venice, the Bacino di San Marco with the Piazzetta and the Doge’s Palace”) that is the most valuable lot of the entire season’s Old Master paintings sales, at £8m-£10m.

It is worth noting, in addition, that the Master Drawings on offer in the salerooms and galleries this week are not necessarily “Old” or monochrome.

London Art Week runs from July 4-11,,

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