Best of 2022 | A long-lost Michelangelo sketch sets auction record at US$4.3m

After more than two years of pandemic lull, the auction industry is bouncing back from the crisis to pre-pandemic levels – if not better. In fact, 2022 has been a stellar auction year where numerous records were set. As we ring in the new year, let's look back on the "best of 2022" in the auction world.

In May, a rare Michelangelo drawing, A nude young man (after Masaccio) surrounded by two figures, was back to in the public eye after it was unseen for a century. Following its rediscovery in 2019, it had been declared a French National Treasure, which prevented it from being exported abroad for 30 months.

As the time limit expired, the work was auctioned off at Christie's Paris for €23.2 million (around US$24.3 million), a record price for a drawing by the artist, though short of the house's expectations.

Georgina Hilton, Head of Classic Art, Asia Pacific and Auctioneer, introduced the work during its preview in Hong Kong

Lot 1 | Michelangelo Buonarroti | A nude man (after Masaccio) and two figures behind him, Pen and two shades of brown ink, brown wash, watermark
33 x 20 cm

  • Modesto Ignazio Bonaventura Luigi Genevosio (1719-1795), Turin (L. 545, laid down on his mount, with inscription ‘Pietro Faccini’ and a number?); possibly sold in 1794 with his other drawings and some paintings to Giovanni Antonio Turinetti, marchese di Priero (1762-1801), Turin; possibly sold by his family in 1803
  • Borghese collection (according to an inscription on the back of the secondary support)
  • Anonymous sale; Hotel Drouot, Paris, 24 April 1907, lot 34 (as ‘Michel-Ange (Ecole de). Figures nues et drapées. Plume. Cachet de collection. Haut., 33 cent.; larg. 20 cent.’); where probably acquired byAlfred Cortot (1877-1962), Paris and Lausanne (his mark, ‘CA’ in an octagon, stamped in black, not in Lugt, followed by a handwritten inscription ‘no 16’ in pen and black ink)
  • Private collection, France

Auction House: Christie's Paris
Date: 18 May 2022
Estimate on request (expected to fetch €30 million)
Sold: €23,162,000
 (around US$24.3 million)

Michelangelo’s previous auction record stood was set in 2000, when his another nude male study, the Risen Christ fetched £8.1 million (US$12.3 million) at Christie’s London.

Auction record, however, does not accurately reflect the master's worth. With the majority of Michelangelo's artworks being kept in museums, only a few of his drawings are still in private hands, making him a rare name at auction. What we see in the open market is often the artist's preparatory studies for the major artworks, which explains why Michelangelo's auction record isn't as impressive as his reputation suggests.

Michelangelo's previous auction record was set by the Risen Christ

This is the second time the work has been put on the auction block. It was last offered for sale in 1907 and sold by the Hôtel Drouot in Paris as a work of from Michelangelo’s school. Remained in private collection ever since, the drawing was a hidden treasure that no one knew existed.

Until in 2019, when Furio Rinaldi, then a specialist in Christie’s department of Old Master Drawings, recognized the work as a genuine Michelangelo during a valuation in France. His view was later confirmed by leading scholars, such as Paul Joannides, Emeritus Professor of Art History at Cambridge University.

After its rediscovery, the drawing was declared a French National Treasure in 2019, originally preventing its export from France for a period of thirty months, giving art institutions time to raise funds for the picture. Now that the time limit has passed, the French government removed such designation and granted its export licence, allowing the work to be offered without any restrictions to the collectors around the globe.

The Brancacci Chapel of the church of Santa Maria del Carmine

The Baptism of the Neophytes, a fresco in the Brancacci Chapel by Masaccio

The unpublished drawing is known to be the first surviving nude study by Michelangelo. The central figure in the work renders the shivering man waiting to be baptised, numb with cold, in the Baptism of the Neophytes, a celebrated fresco in the Brancacci Chapel of the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence by the early Italian Renaissance master Masaccio.

The chapel marked a critical shift in the development of Renaissance art, and was a site of devotion for artists as well as churchgoers. Among them was the young Michelangelo, who practised drawings and made several studies after the frescoes in the chapel, including this A nude man (after Masaccio) and two figures behind him. The other studies based on the Brancacci frescoes are now kept in museums, including Staatliche Graphische Sammlung in Munich and Albertina in Vienna.

Left: A nude young man (after Masaccio) surrounded by two figures; Right: The Baptism of the Neophytes

Despite a copy after Masaccio's fresco, the Renaissance master makes the main figure his own and manifests his vision of beauty in human figures. In the newly discovered drawing, the veil of the central figure has been drawn away. With pen and two shades of brown ink, he creates a more robust, monumental and muscular trembling man in a close knit web of fine hatching and cross-hatching.

The master achieves the effect by subtly shifting the position of the feet and straightening the back of the head, but especially adding volume to the man’s back and buttocks.

In addition to altering the central figure, the Renaissance master added two men, which are unrelated to Masaccio’s composition, in a sketchier and more energetic style in the background.