Know Your Stuff: How A Great Art Discovery Was Made By A Non-Expert

There are still remarkable finds to be made at the neighborhood yard sale – but you will have to bear with me until the end of this piece to find out why.

My readers who find themselves in New York next week, once we have all emerged from the first East Coast blizzard of the season that is, will be able to see a remarkable drawing at The Metropolitan by one of the greatest of all painters, Jan van Eyck (c. 1390-1441), alongside the finished painting based on it. The caveat is that we cannot be sure whether van Eyck himself drew it, or if one of his workshop assistants did so, under his watchful eye. Yet whether by the master himself or by one of his pupils, it is a remarkable survival, considering it was drawn on a piece of (roughly) 8×10 paper nearly 600 years ago.  

The Old Masters often made preparatory drawings of their works before painting them. Some of the most beautiful drawings in existence are by the “Big Three” of Italian Renaissance Art: Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael. Other times, as in the case of Velazquez, there is hardly any evidence that the artist even picked up a piece of paper to doodle on before they started painting. In some instances, the artist or his patron wanted to get a sense of the finished product before committing to it, as in this fascinating story about a recently rediscovered altarpiece mock-up going up for sale at Sotheby’s next week.

In the case of this van Eyck drawing, the level of detail is absolutely extraordinary. Whereas many Old Master drawings are truncated studies, such as a head, a hand, or a piece of drapery, here the artist has worked out an enormous parade of people surrounding the Crucifixion of Christ with careful consideration of each figure’s costumes, faces, and attitudes. Even the fantasy castles in the distance, with Dutch Gothic architecture standing in for the Judeo-Roman city of Jerusalem, have been carefully considered with respect to how their towers and battlements punctuate the empty spaces between the figures and the three crosses.

Now for those of you who enjoy collecting art, the back story on this particular find should encourage you to keep looking in those flea markets and garage sales. Back in 1971, the drawing was purchased at an estate sale in The Netherlands for around $6.00. It had been labeled by the auctioneers as a framed print, and no one paid any attention to it. The purchaser however, a Dutch psychiatrist interested in art history, was convinced that the drawing was the real thing, and not a reproduction. He spent the next several decades researching the drawing and getting experts to examine it. Eventually, the drawing was pronounced genuine, and in 2014 was purchased by a museum in Rotterdam for around $450,000.

Beyond the ever-tantalizing tale of instant wealth however, I think there are two important lessons to be learned here.

The first lesson is that no matter how great you are – or think you are – you need to continue to practice your craft, whatever it may be, rather than rest on your laurels. At the time this drawing was created, about a year before his death, van Eyck was in his fifties, and one of the most coveted artists in Europe. Yet he still needed to produce these drawings in order to work out his ideas before he picked up his brush.

The second lesson is, in a way, related to the first. Just as you should try to be the best at your profession as you can be, you should also try to learn as much about your outside interests as you possibly can. The buyer of this drawing was by profession a psychiatrist, not a professional auctioneer, or art dealer: indeed, these professionals passed on a picture which he thought was just right. He knew his subject, went with his instinct, and was ultimately rewarded for it. While you or I may never find a truly great work of art worth a small fortune at the Sunday swap meet, without ongoing education we will never know how to spot that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity when it arises.    

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Detail of a drawing of "The Crucifixion" by Jan van Eyck or Studio (c. 1440)

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