Editor’s Note: This article was updated with the final sale price and other details following the auction’s conclusion.
A tiny sketch of a bear by Leonardo da Vinci sold for over $12 million on Thursday, setting a new auction record for a drawing by the renaissance artist.
Measuring less than 8 square inches, the item is one of only eight Leonardo drawings left in private hands, according Christie’s, the auction house behind the sale.
The sketch was made on pale pink-beige paper using silverpoint, a technique – taught to Leonardo by his master, Andrea del Verrocchio – that involves marking chemically treated paper with silver rods or wire.
The item has changed hands several times over the centuries – in fact, it was once sold by Christie’s for just £2.50 (about £312, or $430, in today’s money) in 1860. Titled “Head of a Bear,” the drawing has since been displayed at major institutions including the National Gallery in London, the Louvre Abu Dhabi and St. Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum.
In a press statement following Thursday’s sale, the international head of Christie’s Old Master drawings department, Stijn Alsteens, described the work as “small but magnificent.” He added that it “will undoubtedly be one of the last drawings by Leonardo to ever come to the market.”
The drawing, which includes the artist’s signature, was initially expected to fetch up to £12 million ($16.82 million). It eventually sold at the lower end of the estimate, at around £8.9 million ($12.2 million).
Notable previous owners include painter Sir Thomas Lawrence and art collector Captain Norman Robert Colville.
Master of anatomy
The sketch broke the auction record for a Leonardo drawing – previously held by “Horse and Rider,” which sold for £8 million (over $11.2 million) in 2001 – though the price tag fell well short of the current auction record for an Old Master drawing. In 2009, Raphael’s “Head of a Muse,” a study for a fresco commissioned by Pope Julius II for the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican, netted almost $49 million at Christie’s in London.
While Leonardo is best known for oil paintings like the “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper,” the Renaissance master was also celebrated for his anatomical sketches. His drawing “The Vitruvian Man,” a mathematically precise rendering of a nude male, is hailed as one of his greatest accomplishments.
Leonardo was fascinated by the natural world, and he completed many other animal sketches in his lifetime. His drawings of cats and dogs, as well as one of a bear walking, are among those on display at institutions including the British Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Other Leonardo sketches depicted religious figures and biblical scenes. In 2016, a drawing titled “The Martyred Saint Sebastian” was set to fetch 15 million euros ($16 million at the time) at auction, though the sale was blocked after the French government declared the item to be a national treasure.
Other notable lots at Thursday’s auction, which was dubbed “The Exceptional Sale” by Christie’s, included a manuscript signed by Isaac Newton and a 17th-century silver inkstand. They sold for over £1.7 million ($2.3 million) and £1.9 million ($2.7 million) respectively.