Collecting guide: Old Master drawings
Seven expert tips on collecting Old Master drawings, whether you seek affordable works on paper or a museum-quality masterpiece. Illustrated with upcoming works at Christie’s
Writing on the importance of drawing, Tintoretto once proclaimed: ‘Beautiful colours can be bought in the shops on the Rialto, but good drawing can only be bought from the casket of the artist’s talent with patient study and nights without sleep.’
In the Early Modern period, aspiring artists were expected to spend their formative years practising drawing from the live model. French and Italian artists travelled to Rome to ape the Old Masters and the ancients, while Dutch artists also headed to Italy, but mainly to draw inspiration from the landscape of the Roman campagna and the incomparable light.
Draughtsmanship was the basis of much creative production whether the artist worked in clay, paint or metal. It’s often said that drawing is the thought of the artist. The painting on the wall is the finished article, but to arrive at this final state, the artist usually has to draw.
What’s most fascinating about a drawing is that, on a blank sheet of paper, the artist reveals himself before your very eyes. In just a few lines, you can see (hopefully!) when — and where — he or she is from.
Old Master Drawings are often intricately linked with the history of the country in which they were produced: in the 17th century, for example, the Netherlands was an iconoclastic Protestant country, so there were almost no commissions for religious paintings — and, with no real aristocracy, King or court, most art was bought privately. Drawings of landscapes or genre scenes were often viewed not as sketches but as highly finished works of art. Most of these drawn works tended to feature the artist’s signature.
In 2018 Christie’s sold a rare figure study by the Dutch artist Lucas Van Leyden for £11,483,750, making it the third most expensive drawing ever seen at auction.
Italian drawings, however, show the influence of the Church, which played a huge role in artistic patronage. The important commissions given by the Church required extensive preparation, and a significant number of Old Master drawings from Italy are in fact studies of figures and compositional sketches for larger works.
The same is often true of French drawings, although in the 17th century the discipline of French Classicism meant that drawings in that tradition were less Baroque than their freer Italian counterparts, which conveyed a greater sense of movement.
Typically, 16th and 17th-century artists would begin a larger work by quickly sketching their intended composition in pen and ink, often over unobtrusive indications in black chalk. Drawings made with a rapidly wielded pen were ideal for exploring an initial idea.
For greater precision, artists used chalk to more carefully depict individual figures, and to study the fall of light and shadow. Blue paper worked well with chalk — with artists often choosing two shades from black, white or red, and sometimes all three.
Once these initial sketches had been made an artist would move on to the modello, a finished study close to the final composition, and this would often be submitted to a patron for approval.
These were sometimes squared, like the above example by the Italian artist Primaticcio, in order to allow the artist to transfer a composition to canvas more easily — or, in the case of a fresco, to the wall.
In the field of Italian drawing, most collectors look for depictions of the figure, while, for Dutch drawings, landscapes tend to be most popular.
This isn’t always true, however: Rembrandt’s wonderful figure drawings, for instance, are highly sought after. When looking at a drawing, consider its quality, not its adherence to a particular theme.
We once sold a drawing of a cavalier by Pieter van Bloemen, a rather minor Dutch artist of the 17th century (see below). Everyone who saw it loved it. Everything was perfect in condition and composition; it had a special kind of charm. It sold for £253,250, well above its estimate of £3,000 to 5,000. The record price for a van Bloemen before then was around £4,000 and similar drawings have since sold for less than £10,000, but this one was special.
The works we have sold range in price from £700 to £29,000,000. Yet more than 90 per cent of drawings have a market value of less than £10,000 — only a very small proportion are worth a fortune. It is absolutely possible to find very good drawings from good, well-known artists for £4,000 to 5,000.
You can find a perfectly nice little drawing executed by Jean-Baptiste Huet, such as his study of a dog (see below), for less than £5,000.
The signatures you see on drawings can be inauthentic, or misleading, later additions to the works. The number of drawings attributed to Raphael or Michelangelo is enormous. That is where a connection to a finished painting is important, and you should be ready to pay something of a premium where the attribution is beyond doubt. We use our eyes, consult literature and ask the opinions of external scholars.
The confident attribution of the signatures on the Caspar David Friedrich drawing above helped to push its price to £212,500, more than three times its lower estimate, when it sold at Christie’s in 2018.
The value of a drawing can decrease tenfold if its condition is poor. Exposure to sunlight leads to fading and discolouration of the paper, and the ink tends to sink in to the paper and damage it. This used to mean a collector could not always enjoy a collection on his or her walls. But today there are ways to avoid damage from the light such as the use of UV-resistant glass, even though one must always treat them with care.
Drawings can also suffer from insects such as silverfish that eat the paper. Depending on the medium, humidity can also be a problem. For others, it is storage that has been an issue: drawings can be found folded, or with smudged portions, having been left unframed and unprotected.
But let’s not paint too gloomy a picture — most drawings have survived the test of time surprisingly well. We have worked with some extraordinarily well-preserved works, such as Raphael’s Head of a Muse. This direct study — or cartoon as we call it — for the Parnassus, one of the artist’s great frescoes in the Vatican, would be a highlight of any collection. We sold it in 2009, exactly 500 years after it was made. Since it had always been kept in great collections such as those of Sir Joshua Reynolds and William II, Prince of Orange, it has probably always been cherished.
People are often afraid to enter the drawing departments of museums because they feel they are reserved for scholars. This is not true — most of them are open to the public. Visiting museum collections gives you the opportunity to see drawings unframed, just mounted, and that is the best way to approach them. You used to be able to go to the British Museum unannounced and see whatever you wanted. The rules have changed now, but you can still explore the far reaches of the collection if you write to them two weeks in advance. The same applies to many European and American collections.
England has incredible drawing collections at the British Museum, Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum and Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum, and Scotland has treasures, too. In Europe, visit the Louvre in Paris, the Uffizi in Florence and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which has an especially beautiful collection of Dutch drawings. The United States has the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the National Gallery of Washington and the Art Institute of Chicago, among others.
There is something very immediate about a drawing, and you only get a sense of its physicality when you have it in your hands.