A hidden gem by Michelangelo sold for a record US$24.3 million at Christie’s in France

Today in France, Christie's presented a recently rediscovered Michelangelo painting, A nude man (after Masaccio) and two figures behind him – one the most unexpected discoveries made in the field of Old Master Drawings in decades. 

Fetching €23.1 million (around US$24.3 million) with buyer's premium, the painting sets a new auction record for the Renaissance master, though the result is lower than the price expected by the house.

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)
Hammer Price: €20,000,000
Sold: €23,162,000
 (around US$24.3 million)

While the single-lot sale was lauded by Christie's as a momentous event for the art market, bidders were not as enthusiastic as the house had anticipated. A few bids brought the work to the hammer price of €20 million in less than three minutes. The auctioneer tried to get a bid of €22 million but in vain.

The rare piece eventually garnered €23.1 million (around US$24.3 million) after fees, smashing Michelangelo’s previous auction record of £8.1 million (US$12.3 million), set by his another nude male study, the Risen Christ, at Christie’s in London in 2000. 

The auction record, however, does not represent the master's value. With most of Michelangelo's artworks being kept in museums, only a few drawings by him are still in private hands, making him an even rarer name appeared at auction. What put up for sale in 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 holder, 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 to 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 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.

The Brancacci Chapel of the church of Santa Maria del Carmine

Another study based on the Brancacci frescoes at Staatliche Graphische Sammlung in Munich

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.

A study of Michelangelo, now at the Teylers Museum in Haarlem

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

In their manner, the striking facial features and details such as the feet of the man at right, they recall figures in drawings such as the double-sided sheet exhibited at the Teylers Museum in Haarlem, often dated around 1500.