Old Master Drawings

Maybe you can’t afford the $450 million that a Leonardo da Vinci oil painting recently fetched at auction. But if you’re willing to set your sights a little lower many drawings by Old Master painters are well within reach.

 “You can get a drawing for a fraction of the price but it’s still the work of the same genius,” says Elisabeth Lobkowicz, an Old Master paintings specialist at Sotheby’s. “We have drawings from $1,000 to $1 million.” She adds that drawings—smaller and more intimate than paintings—let you feel as if you were standing alongside the artist, looking at the same scene, as he worked. Whether a particular drawing is a study for an ambitious painting—e.g. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling—or something that simply captured the artist’s eye at a distant moment, it “is the handwriting of the artist,” Lobkowicz explains. It could be Rembrandt as he knocked off a Dutch landscape. Or Giovanni Battista Tiepolo as he sketched street life scenes in 18th-century Venice.

I know because I bought a Tiepolo at auction a few years back for a couple of thousand bucks. The artist may be best known for his colorful frescos in cathedrals and palaces that feature puffy clouds and hovering putti—winged cherubs—but the image I purchased is somewhat more, um, accessible. It’s part of a series of drawings, many of which reside in the Metropolitan Museum’s prestigious Robert Lehman Collection. The auction catalogue discreetly described it as “Caricature Of A Man Seen From Behind.” That’s code for a fellow relieving himself on the sidewalk.

These days, art galleries and auction houses display their works online, giving you the ability to zoom in and study every detail of a drawing before deciding whether to make a bid. Their own experts also scour smaller auctions for overlooked treasures and you can, too. Value depends not only on the fame of the artist, but also the condition of the work. After all, they’re just ink or pencil on paper—very old paper.

“Feel free to contact the auction house,” says Lobkowicz. “The experts are always willing to talk to you and will have a better understanding of the market.”

While future financial return is a possibility, the best advice always is to “Buy things you like to live with,” Lobkowicz advises.

And then there’s the bragging rights. Picasso’s 1955 painting Les Femmes d’Alger fetched $179.4 million at Christie’s in 2015. But some of his drawings can go for less than you’d pay for a vintage watch and impress your friends and neighbors even more. I’ve made back the investment on my drawing in the pleasure it gives me. And I won’t lie. It’s also fun to tell visitors, “That’s a Tiepolo.”

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