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For Sale: One Huge Drawing, Maybe by Michelangelo

WorldEuropeFor Sale: One Huge Drawing, Maybe by Michelangelo

For half a century, the Sernesi family lived in a storied villa overlooking Florence, in which the Renaissance artist Michelangelo was raised and later owned. The property came with several buildings, an orchard and a drawing of a muscular male nude etched on the wall of a former kitchen. Tradition has it that the work was drawn by a young Michelangelo, though scholars are not as sure.

Last year, the Sernesi family sold the villa. Now they want to sell the mural drawing, which was detached from its original location in 1979 so that it could undergo a much-needed restoration. Etched with charcoal or black chalk on plaster and measuring about 40 by 50 inches, art historians have identified the figure — who is well built, but a little wizened — as a “triton,” a god of the sea, or a “satyr,” part man part beast.

Over the decades, the drawing has been loaned as a Michelangelo work to exhibitions in Japan, Canada, China and, most recently, the United States, where it was included in the Metropolitan Museum’s blockbuster 2017 show “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer.” The catalog entry for that exhibition, by Carmen C. Bambach, the Met’s curator of drawings and prints, describes it as “the only surviving manifestation of Michelangelo’s skill as a draftsman in large scale.”

News that the drawing is going on the market is likely to expand what has until now been a rather low-key, academic debate over the authorship of a work that has remained in private hands, and mostly out of the public eye, for the past five centuries.

“It’s very interesting, and now it’s surely necessary to carry out further investigations,” said Cecilie Hollberg, the director of the Accademia Gallery in Florence. She had already been to take a look at the drawing, at the request of the Sernesi family, she said.

Years ago, culture ministry officials declared the work of national importance, meaning that it cannot leave Italy, except on loan. In the case of a sale, the culture ministry has the right of first refusal to match the sale price and buy the piece for the Italian state.

Hollberg’s museum, which houses some of Michelangelo’s most famous sculptures including his “David,” might be a good fit if the state decides to exercise this option. Either way, Italy’s tough cultural patrimony laws could significantly impact the sale, restricting both the number of potential buyers and the sale price.

Works by Renaissance masters like Michelangelo rarely come onto the market, and when they do, they can reach sensational prices. In 2022, Christie’s in New York sold a Michelangelo sketch for more than 23 million euros.

But in Italy, such works normally sell for a fraction of what the owners would get if they sold them internationally, said Carlo Orsi, an art dealer with galleries in Milan and London. Italy’s export laws depress the market, he and other experts said.

There are wealthy Italian collectors, he added, but “they’re not so forward-looking,” so “finding customers for these things at those prices is practically impossible.”

At the same, time international buyers may think twice about buying a piece they can’t take home with them, said Francesco Salamone, a lawyer who specializes in cultural heritage laws. “So that cuts out the foreign market, making the work less attractive from a financial point of view,” he added.

Though the family declined to put a price tag on the piece, Ilaria Sernesi, one of the owners, pointed out that when the work traveled to the Met show, it was insured for nearly $24 million dollars. (Experts say that insurance prices don’t always reflect sale values.)

But the Sernesi family said it’s not about money.

“We think it’s a work that merits being seen, appreciated and loved,” said Ilaria Sernesi, a retired biologist, whose family bought the villa in the 1970s.

In the late 19th century, Michelangelo’s descendants sold the estate to a French count, and it passed through several hands before it was bought by an American, who left it to his Italian heirs, who sold to the Sernesi family. The previous owners don’t seem to have given the work much thought. “When we arrived it was in a state of complete neglect,” covered by a cardboard sheet, Sernesi recalled.

In 1979, the drawing was detached from the wall so it could be restored at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence, one of Italy’s leading restoration laboratories. When it returned to the Sernesi home, it hung in the villa’s vaulted dining room until the family decided that it was best kept in a more secure location. The drawing moved to a protected warehouse on the outskirts of Florence.

The Sernesis track the drawing’s attribution to Giorgio Vasari, Michelangelo’s contemporary biographer, who wrote that the young artist honed his skills by drawing on “papers and walls,” though Vasari does not give precise indications where. Some visitors to the villa over the centuries wrote of seeing Michelangelo’s doodles there.

When the drawing first began making the rounds in exhibitions, several of the catalog entries attributing the piece to Michelangelo were written by Giorgio Bonsanti, an Italian Renaissance expert who also oversaw the 1979 restoration. “I just can’t imagine another person entering Michelangelo’s house and drawing a figure on the wall of his kitchen,” he said.

Bonsanti was a protégé of Charles de Tolnay, the Hungarian-born naturalized American who wrote a five-volume study of Michelangelo that says the artist drew the mural as a teenager. Comparisons between the Sernesi drawing and a study by Michelangelo of a bearded man, now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, have led some scholars to date the work to Michelangelo’s mid-20s.

Bambach, the Met curator, referred to it in a 2013 paper as a “neglected work by Michelangelo.” She declined an interview request for this article, citing her museum’s policy of not commenting on works that are on sale. But she confirmed that she stood by that article and her attribution.

Footnotes in Bambach’s article give a detailed breakdown of the “long attribution history” between those in favor of Michelangelo’s authorship, those against and those undecided.

Paul Joannides, a Michelangelo expert and emeritus professor of art history at Cambridge University, said there was a “lot in favor” of a Michelangelo attribution. “However,” he wrote in an email, “for what it’s worth, personally I have never been convinced by it. I see is as clumsy, poorly foreshortened, crude in its facial expression, ill-articulated and generally as of low quality. I find it hard to believe that even the very young Michelangelo could have drawn so badly.”

Francesco Caglioti, a Renaissance expert who teaches at the Scuola Normale in Pisa, Italy, said that if the work were by Michelangelo, he hadn’t been in top form. The artist, he added, had been “a very strict judge of himself,” who destroyed many early works at the end of his life. “Maybe he forgot this one,” Caglioti said.

The Sernesis haven’t contacted a dealer, antiquarian or an auction house to assist in the sale, though Salamone, the lawyer, said it was “extremely rare for an important work of art to be sold without an intermediary,” as it limited the number of potential clients.

“Those are details that we’ll deal with, we haven’t decided anything yet,” said Ilaria Sernesi, one of six family members who own the work.

She was aware, she said, that the export ban would impact the sale. “It’s obvious people will aim to lower the price,” she said, “but it’s also true that there are limits beyond which we won’t go.”

#Sale #Huge #Drawing #Michelangelo

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