Italian drawing from the seventeenth century

[11 Jan 2007]

 

The seventeenth century is being brought back to life, through a series of seven regional exhibitions that offer an overview of Italian drawing at the time. The shows are organised by the Louvre Museum and run from October 14, 2006, to February 23, 2007.

At the height of the baroque period, Italian artists of the seventeenth century used their virtuosity to turn out numerous outlines, sketches and finished drawings. After four centuries, however, such works on paper rarely reach the market in pristine condition: often stained or pierced, they offer less contrast than when they were first drawn. Besides the question of preservation, there is also the matter of quality of execution. The drawings that make it onto the auction stands are often preparatory sketches for larger works and, therefore, not fully realised. So, rather than the prestige of the signature, it is the full treatment of the subject, the liveliness of the line, the colour highlights and play of light and shade that determine the price.

The old master drawings sector attracts some loyal devotees, ready to bid fiercely for museum quality pieces that are becoming increasingly rare as the years go by. Some of these can command higher prices than oil paintings. This is true of Salvator ROSA, who recorded the highest ever price paid for a drawing with his Allégorie de la peinture en guenilles assise dans l’atelier done in pen and ink over black chalk, with wash highlights. The drawing reached twice its estimated price at Christie’s Paris, on December 17, 2003, and was eventually knocked down for EUR 330,000, nearly five times the EUR 70,000 paid for the large-format (100 x 134.3 cm) oil painting Approdo costiero con barcaioli e cavalieri sold on June 7, 2006 at Christie’s Milan. For works by Rosa, and for old master drawings in general, the range of prices is enormous. Buyers prefer drawings that are fully realised and have survived the passage of time in good condition. Collectors are more selective than speculators, which explains why, despite Rosa’s record sale, most drawings at auction went for less than EUR 10,000 in 2006.

Another artist much sought after by lovers of Italian art is GUERCINO. He recorded 10 sales for EUR 100,000 plus between 1990 and 2006. This prolific artist left a vast number of drawings and these represent nearly 90% of his transaction volume. His work is highly prized in the Anglo-Saxon market which handles more than 70% of sales, as well as in France (15%) which hosts twice as many sales as his native Italy. In a sign of the vigour of this market, Guercino notched up the biggest sale of last summer with a red chalk drawing entitled Study of a Youth holding a Drapery, which went for GBP 120,000 (EUR 172,932) at Sotheby’s London on July 5, 2006).

Of the artists with the top ten indices, apart from Rosa and Guercino we would highlight Giovanni Benedetto CASTIGLIONE, PIETRO DA CORTONA, Bartolomeo CESI and Giovanni Lorenzo BERNINI who are the best known to the general public. Works by Bernini, the great baroque master who made the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa in Rome’s Cornaro Chapel, rarely come up for auction: only 9 of his drawings have appeared in 15 years and a good quality work will fetch around EUR 100,000. Works by Alessandro ALGARDI and Francesco Castelli BORROMINI are just as hard to find and well-finished drawings go for an average EUR 10,000-70,000.

Accessible drawings by old masters
It is possible to pick up some drawings by the great Italian masters for a more modest investment, however. Some works on paper sell for around EUR 5,000, such as Algardi’s charcoal Rest on the Flight into Egypt, with a kneeling Angel which went for GBP 4,000 (EUR 5,960 on July 6, 2004, at Christie’s London). In the 2006 season, you could also have acquired an ink on paper by the top-ranked artist Salvator Rosa for just EUR 2,000. His Paesaggio con figure was of a decent size (13.3 x 19.3 cm) and found a buyer at Porro & C. in Milan on November 23, 2006. Auction prices in this bracket can also be found for other essential artists such as Castiglione, Guercino, Carlo Maratti and Bartolomeo Cesi, whose Study of a young man, half-length, in profile to the left, went for GBP 1,000 (EUR 1,443) on July 4, 2006 at Christie’s London. Outside these solid bets, auction stands are brimming with work by anonymous artists for less than EUR 1,000.