The highlight of the latest series of Old Master auctions in London was not a painting this time round but a rare work on paper by an enigmatic draughtsman.
Extracted from Antiques Trade Gazette | Alex Capon
The sketch by Dutch artist Lucas van Leyden (1494-1533) set the third highest price for an Old Master drawing sold at auction when it drew a determined competition at Christie’s sale of works from the Rugby School collection on December 4.
Estimated in the region of £1.5m, three bidders competed strongly for the study of a young man and it was knocked down to a phone bidder at £10m – a price that ranks only behind two works by Raphael, one sold at Sotheby’s and one at Christie’s, in terms of the most expensive Old Master drawings ever auctioned.
One of only 28 surviving drawings by the artist and believed to be last example outside a museum, the 11 x 5in (28 x 13cm) black chalk sketch had come to the fee-paying independent school as part of the impressive collection left to the institution in c.1880 by an alumnus, Matthew Holbeche Bloxam (1805-88).
Bloxam was a distinguished antiquarian and also the nephew of Sir Thomas Lawrence, himself a great collector of Old Masters.
The rarity of Van Leyden works is partly explained by his early death aged 39 from tuberculosis but, as an artist, he was highly unusual in that he built his reputation as a printmaker primarily rather than a painter.
His works are now deemed as precursors to later Netherlandish art in terms of their acute observation, attention to everyday life and unpretentious realism.
On the small number of occasions his pictures have been available, they have drawn considerable connoisseurial interest.
The last example of a drawing changing hands was Archangel Gabriel announcing the birth of Christ which was acquired privately in 2008 by the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The price was not disclosed but the purchase was made thanks to a gift from the investor, collector and Met trustee Leon D. Black and his wife Debra.
The total for the 188-lot Rugby School sale was £14.8m including premium with 157 lots sold on the day (83%).
Both the auctioneers and the school were keen to point out the works had been carefully selected to ensure that nothing intrinsic to the history of Rugby School was sold off and that the proceeds will go towards a new museum space.
Another picture bringing demand at the sale was a study for Sir Edward Poynter’s (1836-1919) Perseus and Andromeda, a ‘lost’ major work commissioned by the Earl of Wharncliffe for his billiard room at Wortley Hall, near Sheffield.
Today it is only known through photographs and a handful of preparatory sketches as the paintings were destroyed when Wortley was bombed during the Second World War.
The full compositional study in the Rugby School collection was estimated at £120,000-180,000. Selling at £270,000, it set a new auction high for a work on paper by the artist.
A further report of the Old Master sales appears in ATG’s print edition.