Raphael drawing sets new record for an Old Master

Even so late in the year, the last month of 2012, the art world hasn’t quite given up on delivering outstanding surprises. The scene was London, a Sotheby’s auction, and the work of interest was Raphael’s Head of a Young Apostle (1519-20).
When the hammer fell for the last time, history had been made. The work of art had sold for an astonishing $47.8 million (approximately £29.7 million), which is a record for the Italian artist, a record for a drawing and another record for Old Master art.
Nobody expected it to go for so much, especially given that the mood for art at auction over the last few years has decidedly been leaning towards post-war and contemporary works, as has been indicative of the respective recent blockbuster sales a few weeks ago at Sotheby’s and Christie’s.
Raphael’s tour de force in elegant and arresting composition now becomes the second-highest work paid for an Old Master at auction, after Ruben’s Massacre of the Innocents, which went for £49.5 million in 2002.
“This very moving study is a paramount example of Raphael’s draughtsmanship – and shows exactly why he is revered as very possibly the greatest master of drawing who has ever lived,” commented Cristiana Romalli, senior director in the Department of Old Master Drawings at Sotheby’s.
“The sheer beauty of this work is utterly breathtaking – and the way in which it allows us to join Raphael as he created his last great masterpiece is hugely exciting.”
It was an exhilarating twenty-minute tussle, with four bidders upping the ante on one another in their pursuit of this undeniably brilliant portrait. Given that it was only estimated to go for a pre-sale estimate of ten to fifteen million pounds, as the price kept increasing, the excitement in the room intensified accordingly.
As soon as it had sold, the packed room rapturously applauded the sale. These are rare moments in art. In the last 50 years, only two other drawings by Raphael – of this preeminent standard – have appeared at auction.
“If you are lucky, at some point in your career a work like this comes along,” observed Gregory Rubinstein, worldwide head of Old Master drawings at Sotheby’s.
“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 drawing, which was executed using black chalk, had belonged to the Devonshire Collection at Chatsworth, which is known for having one of the most outstanding collections of Old Master works of art.
Head of a Young Apostle had been a part of this family’s estate for over 300 years and was first acquired by William Cavendish, the 2nd Duke of Devonshire at the time.
“Tonight’s sale was a great way to end what has been a fantastic year for Sotheby’s – from the record-breaking sale of The Scream to tonight’s landmark sale of the exceptional Raphael drawing from the Devonshire Collection,” said Alex Bell, co-chairman of Sotheby’s Old Master Paintings Worldwide.
It’ll be intriguing to see how Old Master works fare in 2013, which will reveal whether this shock purchase is the exception or a sign of some renewed intrigue in acquiring historic art. Critically, interest in Old Masters has been growing, reflected best in Frieze’s exploration of old and new art earlier this year and the fact that many of today’s best artists positively swoon over the likes of Sandro Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci and Titian.
A better argument is that the classics never went out of fashion; it is just that, from time to time, they are forgotten in the very immediate moment. Not anymore. Not ever again perhaps.
Cadogan Tate can ship works of art from London to your chosen destination anywhere in the world.