Donald Johnston, International Head of European Sculpture at Christie’s in London, recalls the dramatic bidding battle for a pair of marble lions that were sculpted for the tomb of Charles V some 650 years ago
Today, little of the work of 14th-century French sculptor André Beauneveu (circa 1335-1402) survives, although in his day it was said that he had no equal.
In the 1990s, Donald Johnston, International Head of European Sculpture at Christie’s, saw a sculpted pair of lions in a private collection thought to be by the artist. ‘I remember being struck by their beauty,’ says the specialist. ‘You could tell they were by the hand of a great master. But it wasn’t until we sold two pairs of Gothic mourning figures in Paris for record prices in 2013 and 2016 that the time seemed right to suggest that the owner consign them.’
The lions were originally carved in 1364-66 for the family tomb of Charles V of France, in the Basilica of St Denis in Paris. Some 400 years later, in 1793 — at the height of the French Revolution — the tomb was dismantled by the revolutionary government. The archaeologist Alexandre Lenoir (1769-1839) salvaged the sculpture, after which the lions were acquired by the English aristocrat Thomas Neave (1761-1848). They had remained in Neave’s family ever since, unknown to Beauneveu scholars.
‘At £7 million, just as the telephone bidder was probably breathing a sigh of relief, a figure lingering in the doorway raised his hand’
When the lions were consigned to Christie’s, Johnston set out for Paris with his tape measure. When the two metal dowels on the reverse of the marble lions matched corresponding holes in the feet of the effigy, the specialist knew he’d identified the missing work of art.
‘The lions toured to New York and Hong Kong, where they really resonated with the public,’ he says. ‘But on the day of the auction we only had one registered telephone bidder.’ Just as the lot came up for sale, however, Johnston recognised an agent for one of the biggest collectors take a seat in the back of the saleroom, with a bidding paddle tucked in his catalogue.
The pair battled it out to almost £7,000,000 — when the agent conceded defeat. ‘Just as the telephone bidder was probably breathing a sigh of relief,’ Johnston recalls, ‘a figure lingering in the doorway raised his hand.’ The anonymous bidder secured the lions for £9,349,000, a world record for any medieval work of art sold at auction. ‘It was a gratifying finish to a 25-year-old story,’ Johnston says.