S$22.7 million long-lost work by Leonardo da Vinci found

The drawing of the martyred St Sebastian, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, at the Tajan auction house in Paris, on Dec 8, 2016.
The drawing of the martyred St Sebastian, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, at the Tajan auction house in Paris, on Dec 8, 2016. PHOTO: NYTIMES

PARIS (NYTimes) - It is an auctioneer's jackpot dream. A man walks in off the street, opens a portfolio of drawings, and there, mixed in with the jumble of routine low-value items, is a long-lost work by Leonardo da Vinci.

And that, more or less, is what happened to Mr Thaddee Prate, director of old master pictures at the Tajan auction house in Paris, which is to announce on Monday (Dec 12) the discovery of a drawing that a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art says is by Leonardo, the Renaissance genius and master draftsman. Tajan values the work at 15 million euros (S$22.7 million).

On Thursday, The New York Times was ushered into Tajan's private viewing room, where the drawing, of the martyred St Sebastian, about 19cm by 12.7cm, stood resplendent in an Italian Renaissance gold frame on an old wooden easel.

In March, Mr Prate recalled being "in a bit of a rush" when a retired doctor visited Tajan with 14 unframed drawings that had been collected by his bibliophile father. (The owner's name and residence somewhere in "central France" remain a closely guarded secret, at his request.) Mr Prate spotted a vigorous pen-and-ink study of St Sebastian tied to a tree, inscribed on the mount "Michelange" (Michelangelo).

"I had a sense that it was an interesting 16th-century drawing that required more work," said the elegantly suited Mr Prate, speaking in the boardroom of Tajan's art deco premises, near the Paris Opera.

Mr Prate, 55, asked for a second opinion from Mr Patrick de Bayser, an independent dealer and adviser in old master drawings, who examined the St Sebastian in Paris. Mr de Bayser asked, "Have you seen the drawing is by a left-handed artist?" (Leonardo was left-handed.) He also discovered two smaller scientific drawings on the back of the sheet. These diagrammatic studies of candlelight were accompanied by notes written in a minute, Italian Renaissance right-to-left hand.

The two men looked at each other. "I said, 'You can't believe this is by Leonardo?'" Mr Prate recalled. "But that would have been so incredible."

Tajan reached out to New York for a third, definitive view from Ms Carmen C. Bambach, a curator of Italian and Spanish drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ms Bambach was an organiser of the Met's 2003 exhibition Leonardo da Vinci, Master Draftsman, the first in the United States to take a comprehensive chronological overview of the artist's works on paper. That show included two studies, from museums in Hamburg, Germany, and Bayonne, France, that related to the "eight St Sebastians" listed by Leonardo in his Codex Atlanticus sketch and notebooks, preserved in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan.

"My eyes jumped out of their sockets," Ms Bambach said in a telephone interview, remembering her first sight of the drawing in Paris with Mr de Bayser on the last day of March. "It exactly complemented the Hamburg St Sebastian," she added, referring to how that pen-and-ink study of the saint tied to a tree also included inscribed optical studies on the reverse side, and to how the handwriting of the inscription was consistent in both double-sided drawings.

"The attribution is quite incontestable," Ms Bambach said, even though the drawing has no pre-20th-century ownership history. "What we have here is an open-and-shut case. It's an exciting discovery."

In Ms Bambach's view, the newly discovered drawing is the most highly developed and attractive of the three known studies associated with what may have been a lost painting of St Sebastian. Unlike its monochromatic Hamburg companion, the Paris St Sebastian is drawn in two shades of ink, features several alterations to the pose and has a mountainous landscape in the background.

"My heart will always pound when I think about that drawing," Ms Bambach said. "It has so many changes of ideas, so much energy in the way he explores the figure. It has a furious spontaneity. 

"It's like glancing over his shoulder," she said of Leonardo.

Ms Bambach estimates the drawing's date at 1482-85, during the early phase of Leonardo's period in Milan, when he painted his first version of The Virgin Of The Rocks, now in the Louvre.

(The Met said it had no agreement with the auction house to buy or to show the artwork.) According to Ms Bambach, the drawing - which she hopes will be bought by a French museum - represents the first "Leonardo, full stop" discovery (as she put it) in this medium since 2000, when Sotheby's in London offered a slighter sheet from around 1506-08 that had black chalk and pen studies of Hercules and whirlpools.

It failed to sell against a low estimate of 400,000 pounds but sold later for about US$550,000. The drawing (also attributed by Ms Bambach) is now jointly owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and New York collector Leon Black and his wife, Ms Debra Ressler.

As for a much-debated mixed-media profile portrait of a young woman, known as La Bella Principessa, which eight years ago was valued by London dealer Simon Dickinson at as much as US$150 million, Ms Bambach said: "It does not look like a Leonardo."

A painter, sculptor, architect, scientist and inventor of seemingly limitless ambition (if not finished execution), Leonardo (1452-1519) most formidably embodies the notion of universal genius.

This reputation has been translated into formidable financial value for the few of his works that have come up for sale. In 1994, Bill Gates paid US$30.8 million at Christie's for the Codex Hammer notebook, containing 300 drawings and scientific writings. More controversially, in 2013 Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev bought Leonardo's painting Christ As Salvator Mundi, circa 1499, for US$127.5 million from Swiss businessman and dealer Yves Bouvier, who had recently bought it for US$80 million from a consortium of dealers.

The current high for a Leonardo drawing sold at auction is US$11.5 million, at Christie's in 2001, for a silverpoint study of a horse and rider.

In September, Mr Prate and Mr Nicolas de Moustier, director general of the auction house, drove to an undisclosed part of France to deliver the good news to their client.

"I hope you're not shocked?" Mr Prate recalled asking.

"I'm very pleased," the owner calmly replied. "But I have other interests in life other than money."

Curators from the Louvre inspected the Tajan drawing in October, without, as usual, being drawn into any official pronouncement. France has the option of declaring the work a "national treasure" to stop its export. The government would then have 30 months to offer a "fair international market value" for the drawing, according to rules protecting French heritage.

Alternatively, it can issue the work a passport, allowing its sale globally, which Ms Rodica Seward, Tajan's owner, hopes will happen.

"This reinforces Tajan's reputation as a high-end boutique auction house," Ms Seward, a Romanian-born American citizen, said in her boardroom in Paris, seated behind a desk that she designed. Trained as an architect before becoming a banker for 20 years, she bought Tajan in 2003.

"My friends thought I was mad," Ms Seward said.

But they might not have thought her so mad if they had the chance to walk with her and Mr Prate through Tajan's first-floor private viewing room, where the long-lost St Sebastian stood in its Renaissance gold frame.

"If only it could speak," said an awed Mr Prate.