Acquisitions Museums News USA

Met buys a David for $840

Sharp-eyed curators spot that sketch is an artist’s original, rather than a copy

David's The Death of Socrates in brush, black ink and grey

Amid the multi-million-dollar record prices and packed salerooms of New York’s Old Master week, the Metropolitan Museum of Art quietly made the steal of the season in the Old Master drawings auction at Swann Galleries on 29 January.

Catalogued and illustrated (above) as “French school, early 19th century”, the 24.5cm by 38.2cm sheet (est $500-$700) depicting The Death of Socrates in brush, black ink and grey wash was described as “lightly squared for transfer in pencil. After the painting by Jacques-Louis David in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.”

David’s painting (below), bought by the Met in 1931, is among the artist’s greatest masterpieces, and has received universal acclaim since its debut at the Salon of 1787. At first glance, the newly acquired drawing may appear to be a copy, but considerable changes in setting and in the positions and gestures of the figures indicate that it is, rather, a previously unrecorded preliminary compositional study for the painting.

For instance, in the painting and in a highly finished chalk drawing by David (bought by the Met from Wildenstein in 1961), the seated figure of Crito reaches out imploringly to grasp Socrates’s thigh: in the earlier drawing, Crito merely looks up, holding a large open book on his lap. George Goldner, the museum’s curator of drawings, says: “Several curators in the department—Perrin Stein and Stijn Allsteens—noticed this. The drawing style is typical of David. It was obvious we had to have it.”

Compositional drawings by David are highly sought after. In 2006, the Met bought a study for The Lictors Bringing Brutus the Bodies of his Sons, 1787, which had been auctioned in Paris the previous year for €510,000. Despite all the sleeper-seeking drawing dealers and curators in town, nobody else spotted Socrates at Swann—and the Met snapped it up, via the museum’s frequent agent Katrin Bellinger, for its high estimate of $700 ($840 with premium).

The painted version was bought by the Met in 1931
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