Are amazing discoveries still possible in the market of Old Master drawings?

Old Master specialist Crispian Riley-Smith aims to unlock the market of drawings and why discoveries are still possible.


The market for Old Master Drawings, and all art, is all about discovery, but especially in the field of drawings where most of the works of art are unsigned and the attribution to an artist is based on connoisseurship. The unlocking of an attribution can sometimes be immediate, but often takes a period of time to unlock the attribution, but the potential discoveries are enormous. Discovery is about new artists, new prices, new attributions and new techniques. This is an incredibly exciting part of the market and one which is a big driving force and motivator for collectors, dealers and academics.

Just for a few minutes think how big the field of art is. How many works did one artist produce? How many artists were there? Let’s do some simple maths: In any one year an artist might paint 30-50 pictures, execute 100-300 drawings, times that by an average working-life span of an artist, which that is 30 years of creative output, so that is on average an artist will produce about 7,200 works. Let’s say there are 2,000 artists in a generation, that is 14.4 million works of art in one generation, times this by 10 generations we are looking at 144 million works of art since 1500 to 2000. That is a lot of art to discover! This does not include amateur artists, craftsmen, furniture and many other fields of art.

"It is possible for dealers, collectors and those with interest in the subject to make these discoveries for themselves. "

Of course the production of artists varies enormously depending on how long they lived, and how productive they were. Leonardo da Vinci was famous in his small output of paintings, and it is certainly under 20 accepted paintings by the artist, so the re-appearance of a painting-or drawing- by the artist is going to create some significant excitement in the market. 

The sale of the newly re-discovered painting by Leonardo of the Salvator Mundi on 15 November 2017 at Christie’s in New York has only created greater interest in the artist, and became the highest sale figure at auction for an individual work of art, at $450 million or $450.3 million including buyer’s premium.

In 2016 a new drawing by Leonardo da Vinci, one of the greatest Renaissance artists, was made by Patrick de Bayser, a specialist in Old Master Drawings at the famous family firm of Galerie De Bayser, after being consulted by Thaddée Prate, from the Parisian auction house Tajan. It was Patrick de Bayser who was the first to recognise this drawing was by the master, and has drawn in his characteristic left hand technique. Mr de Bayser reached out to New York for a third, definitive view from Carmen C. Bambach, Curator of Italian and Spanish drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “The attribution is quite incontestable,” Dr. Bambach said “What we have here is an open-and-shut case. It’s an exciting discovery.”

But this is not the only recent significant re-discovery of a major Italian Renaissance artist, indeed a drawing was offered at a Paris auction with an attribution to Italian Renaissance painter Giovanni Francesco Penni (1488-1528), a pupil of Raphael, was sold at €1.13m (£980,000), estimated at €5,000-7,000, The Holy Family with St John the Baptist child was sold at Drouot Estimations on April 12.

The reasons why it is still possible to make discoveries I have already outlined, namely the tremendous number of drawings, paintings, sculptures out in the market, but also because attributions change and fluctuate because this is not an exact science. More research is uncovering new attributions. It is possible for dealers, collectors and those with interest in the subject to make these discoveries for themselves. I know because I have made many myself.

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