The J. Paul Getty Museum on Tuesday purchased a little-known Michelangelo drawing of the Holy Family for $6.27 million, the highest price ever paid at auction for an Old Master drawing, according to Christie's auction house in London. A Munich dealer bid for the museum at Christie's.
"The Holy Family With the Infant Baptist on the Rest on the Flight Into Egypt," drawn around 1530, was sold by Christie's for an unidentified consignor. It is the Getty's first Michelangelo and the best example of the Italian Renaissance master's drawing in the United States outside of New York, according to Getty officials. The only Michelangelo drawing of comparable quality in an American collection is a study for the Sistine Chapel at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
"The Michelangelo is probably the greatest drawing in our collection," Getty Museum Director John Walsh said of the chalk and ink work, which depicts a meeting of John the Baptist with Mary, Joseph and the Christ child, during the family's escape from Herod's persecution.
"I couldn't be happier," said George Goldner, Getty curator of paintings and drawings. "I've never bought anything for the Getty--and I've bought a lot--that I've been more thrilled about."
Since 1981, beginning with the purchase of a Rembrandt drawing of Cleopatra, Goldner has built the museum's renowned collection of about 400 Old Master drawings.
The victory is particularly sweet for Goldner because he had unsuccessfully pursued the drawing before the auction. "The Holy Family" had not been on public display since 1836, but it had been on Goldner's wish list for eight years.
After seeing a reproduction of the Michelangelo in 1985 in Burlington magazine, an art history journal that listed the work's location as unknown, he embarked on a detective mission and found that Eustace Robb, a reclusive British collector, was the owner. But Goldner's efforts to see the drawing were rebuffed, he said. Goldner said he believes the unidentified consignor in Christie's auction inherited the Michelangelo from Robb, who died a few years ago.
The auction house declined to reveal any information about the seller but said the Michelangelo is the finest Old Master drawing to be offered at auction since 1984, when Raphael's "Study of a Man's Head and a Hand" was sold for $4.77 million. Leonardo da Vinci's "Drapery Study" broke that record in 1989, selling for about $5 million.
"The thing I'm happiest about is that the drawing really represents the artist," Goldner said. "We didn't have to compromise to buy a Michelangelo. This is not just an example of his work; this is a wonderful drawing and a powerful image."
Walsh concurred: "It carries across the room, and it speaks Michelangelo's language in the clearest, most forceful way. The Madonna is kneeling with the infant Christ, but there is no cuddling going on. She looks like a goddess, like Aphrodite . . . and Christ is no drooling baby. He is a little athlete. The body language carries the poetry here. These are gods, not because of their attributes but because of their physical beauty and weightiness and (their portrayal of) the ideals of humanity."
The drawing is prized for the complexity of its subject matter, its size (at 11 x 15 3/8 inches, it is large for a drawing from the period) and its intricacy.
"It is worked in black chalk, red chalk and brown ink," Walsh said. "You can see the artist's changes of mind as he went along."
The drawing remained in Michelangelo's family for many years after the artist's death in 1564 and later was owned by the British painter Thomas Lawrence. Samuel Woodburn, Lawrence's principal agent and creditor, took over Lawrence's collection after his death in 1830. He organized a series of exhibitions in 1836, hoping to sell the collection as a unit, but eventually sold a group of Michelangelos, including "The Holy Family," to King William II of Holland. Robb is thought to have inherited the drawing from a family member who acquired it from the Dutch king.
Under British law, the Getty must apply for a license to export the drawing. The British will be given a chance to match the purchase price to keep the work in the country, but the Getty expects no serious problems because British collections are already rich in Michelangelo drawings.