Whenever a work of art changes hands there is always a story behind it. When a collection appears on the market an entire lifetime emerges, or, in the case of figures like Robert Lebel (1901-1986), a chapter in history. In the catalogue to the sale of his old master drawings, Sotheby’s manages to condense Lebel’s extraordinary range of interests and experience into a single paragraph. To say that he “defied classification” is not an exaggeration. An art historian and collector, he wrote essays, novels, as well as the first biography of Marcel Duchamp. He was a friend of André Breton, Max Ernst, and Jacques Lacan. During the Second World War the circle went into exile in New York, where Matta, Tanguy, and Claude Lévi-Strauss joined them. At this time Lebel acquired as special interest in American Indian art, especially Eskimo art. His pioneering collection of Eskimo masks was sold at the Hôtel Drouot in 2006. Now Sotheby’s has dispersed his important collection of old master and 19th-century drawings.
While Lebel’s collection contains several sheets of the highest beauty and importance, it is hardly a show collection. It is rather the collection of a passionate scholar and amateur, with its proper share of fascinating curiosities and oddities, as well as superb work by lesser-known masters, who have become appreciated only relatively recently. Even in the long-established field of master drawings, Lebel was a pioneer. The sale is not only one more impressively successful commercial event in the midst of this severe economic downturn, but a document of the reception Renaissance, Baroque, and nineteenth century draftsmen in the circle of the Surrealists.
The first lot in the sale, Sotheby’s first Paris auction devoted exclusively to master drawings, is an alluring chalk study (€1750) of a young male nude by Enea Salmeggia, called il Talpino (1565-1626).1 The work of this superb Lombard artist is extremely rare outside the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo and the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, the two cities where he mainly worked, and he only became more widely known after Ugo Ruggeri began to write about him in the early 1970s. The first and, as far as I know, the only monographic exhibition of his work was held in Bergamo in 1986. Equally typical of Lebel in its originality and quality is a large drawing of the Flaying of of Marsyas attributed to Raffaelino da Reggio (€11, 875 – high est. €7,000). The flippancy of the artist’s treatment of this gruesome scene would have amused Lebel’s friend Ernst. In the same spirit was a small study sheet by a follower of Rosso Fiorentino with a dancing satyr, a nude youth turning a cartwheel, and a partially draped man walking on stilts. This playful drawing sold for five times its high estimate of €1500 at €7500. The lush red chalk study of a nude boy by Pietro Faccini, a pupil of Annibale Carracci, almost doubled its high estimate of €15,000, reaching €28,350.
The exceptionally beautiful chalk study by Palma Giovane of a running figure in his Iron Age, after Ovid, painted for the Ducal Palace at Mirandola, also surpassed its high estimate of €12,000, selling for €16,875. A rare late 15th or early 16th century German study sheet sold for almost seven times its high estimate at €27,150. Sotheby’s offered a bit of nostalgia as well: grouped lots of anonymous drawings. These opportunities for bargains and discoveries have become all-too-rare in the ambitious art market of the past fifteen years. A mostly attractive group of Spanish drawings sold for almost double its high estimate at €11,250, while an even more interesting group of eleven Italian drawings sold for €5000, below its high estimate of €6000—a great bargain, not least because it contained a winsome study of a young male saint (St. John the Evangelist?) from the school of Perugino, which reflects the moment (c. 1502-04) when Raphael was employed in the workshops of both Perugino and Pintoricchio.2
Especially fascinating was a small, double sided study sheet by Francesco Salviati, confirmed by Catherine Monbeig Goguel. On the recto a loose pen sketch of the highly unusual subject of a crew of nude putti assembling a mannequin is combined with a red chalk drawing of St. John the Evangelist with his attribute, the eagle. The handling of the chalk in the St. John shows the influence of Francesco’s teacher, Andrea del Sarto, indicating that this is a very early work, dating from the period when he was in Rome together with his friend Giorgio Vasari, who in his life of Francesco, relates how the two of them spent their time, obsessively drawing every worthwhile work of art they came upon (attesero quella vernata…con molto profitto, alle cose dell’arte, non lasciando nè in palazzo nè in altra parte di Roma cosa alcuna notabile, la quale non disegnassono). The verso, a red chalk study after the antique, shows two cavalrymen, one wounded. The use of the red chalk in modelling and hatching, as well as the rendering of the rearing horse is identical to large drawing from the same period of St. George and the Dragon in red and black chalk formerly at Holkham Hall and now in the Cleveland Museum of Art (92.60). This drawing, which adds an important piece to the jigsaw puzzle of Salviati’s early career, sold for close to its low estimate, at €42,750, presumably because of its small size, like a fine study sheet from Perino del Vaga’s Genoese period, which sold for €58,350, also not far from its low estimate of €50,000.
As fascinating and as beautiful as these drawings are, they are not the reason this sale has aroused so much excitement. The jewel of the crown was Parmigianino’s study, primarily in red chalk with white heightening and traces of black chalk, for his most famous work, the Madonna dal Collo Lungo in the Uffizi. This enormous panel painting went through a long period of gestation, and the morphology of its figures, their spacial and dimensional relationships, and the overall composition went through a radical metamorphosis. The Lebel drawing represents the earlier phases of the design in an especially well-developed way. In fact it is one of Parmigianino’s greatest sheets, never published until now, except in a copy by Zanetti. Quite understandably a European collector paid a record price for the drawing, €780,750 ($1,056,972).
A modello by Giorgio Vasari for Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter in the Cappella Paolina in the Vatican also set a price record, going to an American collector for €420,750. This example of Vasari’s draftsmanship at its most elegant is a sibling of a drawing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art for another composition in the sale decoration, in which the narrative scene is also flanked by Corinthian pilasters.
Important drawings by Netherlandish mannerists have become extremely rare. Hendrick Goltzius’ pen and wash drawing of Venus Ordering Cupid to Pierce Pluto with his Arrow, a modello for an engraving by Jacob Matham, was sold to a dealer for €144,750 ($195,961; high estimate €80,000). A less important pen drawing by Goltzius of the Head of a Warrior in the Antique Style sold for over twice its high estimate at €34,350—another confirmation of the intense interest in northern mannerism. Certainly works by Goltzius—or his Rudolphine contemporaries, Spranger, von Aachen, Heints, and de Vries—of this quality have not been on the market for some years.
There was an important red chalk study of Cleopatra by Claude Vignon and less important sheets by Poussin and Claude Lorrain. Lebel’s 19th century drawings were in general less important than his old masters, but there were some fine works, especially by David and Delacroix. An interesting and very attractive Delacroix sheet with a black chalk study, apparently after Goya, and a watercolor of a rose, was bought by a dealer for over twice its high estimate at €31,950.
To judge by the results of this sale, the market in old master drawings is in a very healthy state. Of course the buyers were bidding on objects of real value, not second-rate cars, handbags, or McMansions. I urge you to read this article over again…twice, three times, even more; and you will begin to believe that you’re living in a different world.