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Head of a bear sets new record for a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci, selling for £8.8m

[July 9, 2021: Anna Brady]

A study of a bear's head by Leonardo da Vinci has sold for a record £7.5m (£8.8m with fees) at Christie's in London today. It was estimated to make £8m to £12m ($11.2m to $16.9m) but was hammered down under that estimate, to a single bid from a man and woman in the saleroom.

Measuring 7cm square, this tender silverpoint drawing on pale pink-beige paper was executed around 1480 and is one of eight known Leonardo drawings still in private hands, excluding those in the British Royal Collection and the Devonshire Collections at Chatsworth.

It was being sold today by the American collector Thomas Kaplan, who owns the Leiden Collection, renowned for its huge number of Dutch Old Masters, specifically Rembrandts. The drawing, thought to have been done from life, had been exhibited widely—notably in the National Gallery’s 2011 Leonardo exhibition (when it was exhibited next to Lady with an Ermine) and at the Long Museum in Shanghai (2017-18) as part of the Leiden Collection’s global touring show. Christie’s would not comment on the identity of the vendor, however, referring to it only as a “family trust”.

The work had previously been in the collections of the 18th-century British painter Thomas Lawrence (it bears his collection stamp) and the dealer Samuel Woodburn, who sold it at Christie's in 1860 for £2.50.

The previous record for a drawing by Leonardo was held by Horse and Rider (1480), a slightly larger sheet sold for £8.1m at Christie's in London in 2001.


The bear fax

Kaplan bought the drawing from the London-based Old Master paintings dealer Johnny van Haeften in 2008. (Van Haeften is also now director of exhibitions for the Leiden Collection, named after Rembrandt's hometown). "He couldn't come to see the drawing at the time so I faxed it to him—not the actual drawing, I did photocopy it first—and he bought it from the fax!" van Haeften tells The Art Newspaper. Kaplan's core interest lies in Dutch paintings but, van Haeften says: "I offered him the bear drawing because his son is called Leonardo." Kaplan, van Haeften says, "doesn't need the money, that's not why he's selling. He's only selling it because it's the only Italian Renaissance drawing in a collection of Dutch and mainly Rembrandt works—I don't think Leonardo even had a dirty weekend in Leiden!"

Leonardo da Vinci's Head of a Bear (around 1480) - Courtesy of Christie's

Stephen Ongpin, a London-based works on paper specialist, points out that while Kaplan is not an Italian Renaissance specialist, he has a passion for wildlife so the subject no doubt appealed. In 2006, Kaplan founded Panthera, an organisation devoted to the conservation of wild cat species. Speculating on who the buyer might be before the sale, Ongpin says: "Leon Black is the major drawings buyer at this level. The Getty's curator [Julian Brooks] has also been in town this week [from Los Angeles]. Or, as it's one of the last opportunities to buy a Leonardo, it's a trophy piece for someone who may not usually buy in this area. I imagine there will be some Asian interest."

Ongpin describes the drawing as "a tiny trophy, a Post It note Leonardo. It has a tenderness you don't normally see in Leonardo's work."


Beargain buy

Matthew Landrus, a Leonardo expert and Supernumerary Fellow at Wolfson College & Faculty of History, University of Oxford, tells The Art Newspaper: "I think the buyer should be very happy to have that for only £7.5m. I hope the new owner will continue to exhibit it, as it’s part of a series of studies that show Leonardo's interest in understanding a bear, its movements, anatomy, and comparative anatomy between bears and humans. He also studied cats, potentially for similar reasons." Landrus notes that bear and cat studies also relate to Da Vinci's costume designs.

He adds that the St Sebastian drawing that is at the centre of a new legal battle in France also would have an estimate of around £8m to £12m, were it to come up at auction at Tajan.

Surprisingly, rather than being offered in the main Old Master paintings evening sale which follows tonight, Head of a Bear was sold among the clocks, works of art and furniture of The Exceptional Sale. On the choice of this context, Stijn Alsteens, the international head of Old Master drawings at Christie’s London, says: "The owner was attracted to The Exceptional Sale because it presents a variety of works of art from different disciplines, all united by their exceptional quality. Christie’s has successfully sold several drawings of exceptional quality and value in other sales than those solely dedicated to Old Master Drawings, notably Raphael’s Head of a muse, included in the Old Master Paintings Evening Sale of December 2009, and six sheets from Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo’s Punchinello series, included in the Old Master Paintings Evening Sale of December 2019."


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