Long-lost Da Vinci work stirs art world

The drawing of the martyred Saint Sebastian by Leonardo da Vinci is valued at $22.6 million.
The drawing of the martyred Saint Sebastian by Leonardo da Vinci is valued at $22.6 million.PHOTO: NYTIMES

PARIS • 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 was to announce yesterday the discovery of a drawing that a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art says is by da Vinci, the Renaissance genius and master draftsman.

Tajan values the work at €15 million (S$22.6 million).

Last Thursday, this reporter was ushered into Tajan's private viewing room, where the drawing of the martyred Saint Sebastian, about 19cm by 12.7cm, stood resplendent in an Italian Renaissance gold frame on an old wooden easel.

The drawing of the martyred Saint Sebastian by Leonardo da Vinci is valued at $22.6 million.
The drawing of the martyred Saint Sebastian by Leonardo da Vinci is valued at $22.6 million. PHOTO: NYTIMES

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 Saint 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 Mr Prate, 55, speaking in the boardroom of Tajan's Art-Deco premises near the Paris Opera.

He asked for a second opinion from Mr Patrick de Bayser, an independent dealer and adviser in old-master drawings, who examined the Saint Sebastian in Paris.

Mr de Bayser asked: "Have you seen the drawing is by a left-handed artist?" (Da Vinci 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 recalls. "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.

She 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 Saint Sebastians" listed by da Vinci 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 in March.

"It exactly complemented the Hamburg Saint 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," she 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 her 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 Saint Sebastian. Unlike its monochromatic Hamburg companion, the Paris Saint 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."

She added of da Vinci: "It's like glancing over his shoulder."

She estimates the drawing's date at between 1482 and 1485, during the early phase of the artist's period in Milan, when he painted his first version of The Virgin Of The Rocks, now in the Louvre.

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.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 13, 2016, with the headline 'Long-lost Da Vinci work stirs art world'. Print Edition | Subscribe