It’s a common question to be asked: if you won the lottery, what would you spend the money on? Imagine – you’ve suddenly got a cool £30 million knocking around. What would you buy? A big house, a new car, a holiday? Or an old bit of paper from half a millennium ago? It may be hard for some to believe, but someone, somewhere, has in fact just spent £29,721,250 on a piece of 500-year-old paper. It just happens to have a sketch by Raphael on it.
Three records were set by this sale: the highest price achieved by any Raphael artwork, the second highest price for any Old Master, and the highest price for any work on paper from any period. This exquisitely drawn sketch is an auxiliary cartoon or study for one of the young apostles in Raphel’s greatest masterpieces, the Transfiguration. Commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de Medici in 1516, the Transfiguration stands at over 4 metres high, powerful and imposing, and was described by Vasari in Lives of the Artists as “most beautiful and most divine”. Its luminous colours, dynamic composition and almost Baroque-esque use of chiaroscuro make it one of the most striking works of the High Renaissance.
Gregory Rubinstein, Worldwide Head of Old Master Drawings at Sotheby’s, said “If you are lucky, at some point in your career a work like this comes along. A number of the world’s greatest collectors stepped up tonight in recognition of the genius of Raphael and the extraordinary beauty of this drawing with its exceptional provenance.” The work’s provenance is definitely impressive; it has remained in the Devonshire collection for almost 300 years after being bought by William Cavendish, 2nd Duke of Devonshire, one of the greatest Old Master drawing collectors of all time. His acquisitions account for about 90% of the drawings in the Devonshire collection.
It seems that 4 bidders liked it enough to battle it out for the drawing for 17 intense minutes, driving the total far above the £10-15 million sale estimate before the hammer finally fell. “Two London-based dealers, Jean-Luc Baroni and Stephen Ongpin, vied for the drawing before it fell to an anonymous telephone bidder, whom many observers are suggesting, with reason, was Russian”.
There is something simplistically beautiful and moving about this sketch. Its emotion is subtle yet palpable, and the lines are delicate yet definite, and I can say with certainty that I will never see another drawing quite like it.
Sotheby’s catalogue entry: http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2012/old-master-british-paintings-evening-l12036/lot.52.html
 C. Gleadell, ‘Art sales: Buyers hungry for quality’, 11/12/12, The Daily Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/artsales/9737579/Art-sales-Buyers-hungry-for-quality.html