Leonardo da Vinci’s Head of a Bear, offered as the leading lot in the Exceptional Sale held Thursday evening at Christie’s London, realized £8,857,500 ($12.2 million) against a presale estimate of £8,000,000-12,000,000. The result sets a new world record for a drawing by the artist. The previous record for a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci offered at auction was the Horse and Rider, also sold at Christie’s in 2001 for £8,143,750 ($11,481,865).
This penetrating study of a bear’s head, one of less than eight surviving drawings by Leonardo still in private hands outside of the British Royal Collection and the Devonshire Collections at Chatsworth, and measuring 2 ¾ x 2 ¾ inches (7 x 7 cm), is executed in silverpoint on a pale pink-beige prepared paper, a technique which Leonardo was taught by his master Andrea del Verrocchio.
Stijn Alsteens, International Head of Department, Old Master Drawings, Christie’s said,"I was always confident that the great quality and rarity of the work would attract bidding from around the world and would lead to an exceptional result. This wonderful example of Leonardo’s studies from life is well documented and widely published and will undoubtedly be one of the last drawings by Leonardo to ever come to the market."
The drawing’s provenance can be traced back to Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), the renowned British painter whose collection of old master drawings is considered among the greatest ever assembled. After Lawrence’s death in 1830, the drawing passed to his dealer (and major creditor) Samuel Woodburn, who sold it at Christie’s in 1860 for £2.50. In the first half of the twentieth century, the drawing was in the collection of another great British collector, Captain Norman Robert Colville, who also owned Raphael’s Head of a Muse, sold at Christie’s in 2009 for £29,161,250 ($48,009,960).
The medium connects this sheet to three similar small-scale studies of animals, a study of two cats and a dog in the British Museum, its companion double-sided sheet with studies of a dog’s paws in the National Galleries of Scotland, and a study of a walking bear in the Lehman Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The studies can all be dated to the first half of the 1480’s. The face of the bear is very close to the ermine in Leonardo’s portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, also known as A Lady with an Ermine, in the Princes Czartoryski Museum in Cracow, one of the master’s most celebrated pictures.