From Roman and Greek sculptures to illuminated manuscripts and a monolithic slice of meteorite, Christie’s Classic Week explores an extraordinary timeline of art and objects across seven live auctions and two online-only auctions. Here, we draw on expert insight from Christie’s specialists to delve into the remarkable provenance of five items from the sales. You can also view them online, or get up close and personal with each piece’s history at the Classic Week exhibition in London, until July 15.
Head of a Bear by Leonardo da Vinci
One of very few works by Leonardo da Vinci owned by private collectors, Head of a Bear is “an exquisite demonstration of da Vinci’s unsurpassed mastery as a draughtsman, and of his groundbreaking attitude towards the study of nature,” says Giles Forster, head of 19th century furniture and works of art at Christie’s.
Executed in silverpoint, an incisive and demanding technique “which permits no mistakes,” Forster says, “da Vinci achieved great luminosity, evoking the play of light and shade on the animal’s dense fur.” The drawing also has distinguished provenance: its paper links it to three other small-scale studies of animals by the artist, which are currently held in the British Museum in London, the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
“These are among the first of their kind within da Vinci’s extensive body of drawings made from nature,” Forster explains. “They may have come from a sketchbook or sketchbooks in which the young artist captured a variety of poses of live animals for his own practice and to be used when working on paintings. In these early and innovative drawings, he infused a new level of realism into a longstanding tradition of animal imagery.”
A da Vinci drawing hasn’t been offered for sale since 2001, when Christie’s sold Horse and Rider for £8.14 million ($11,474,544), a record price for a silverpoint by the artist, making this sale a very special opportunity.
A working manuscript of the Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica by Sir Isaac Newton
“When the Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica was published in 1687, it was groundbreaking,” says Christie’s head of books and manuscripts, Thomas Venning. “It changed the way we do science.” In it, Isaac Newton attempted to explain movement, drawing on the concepts of inertia, acceleration, force, momentum, and mass.
Seven years later in 1694, Newton spent six days with Scottish mathematician and astronomer David Gregory in Cambridge, U.K. “Following discussions with the young scientist, Newton made extensive revisions to a work that had shaken the very foundations of science when it had first been published,” Venning explains.
Christie’s is now auctioning an apparently unpublished and heavily corrected handwritten draft manuscript. Scientific manuscripts by Newton are extremely rare, as much of his archive is owned by Cambridge University. No other autographed manuscript relating to the Principia has been offered for sale since 1999. “It is still possible to acquire his writings on alchemy and theology, but not on science,” Venning says, rendering this sale hugely significant.
In the Gardens of the Villa Negroni at Rome by John Robert Cozens
“It’s a great moment when one of these appears on the market,” says specialist Annabel Kishor of In the Gardens of the Villa Negroni at Rome, painted by John Robert Cozens for the eccentric collector William Beckford (1760-1844), following a year-long journey around Italy. Cozens completed seven sketchbooks during the trip, now owned by the Whitworth Art Gallery at the University of Manchester, from which Beckford selected more than 90 to be recreated as watercolors.
While the sketches are delicate in style, the watercolors are described as intense. “This painting has a wonderfully unpredictable composition,” says Kishor, a specialist in the British drawings and watercolors department at Christie’s in London. “In front you have these huge, gloomy cypresses and pines, while behind, dark storm clouds gather against a setting sun. It has an incredible brooding quality.”
Cozens’ watercolors from this period very rarely appear on the market, with many now owned by museums. In 2010, one of his paintings sold for £2.4 million ($3.3 million), setting a new record for 18th-century British watercolors. Of In the Gardens of the Villa Negroni at Rome, Kishor says, “This is easily the best I’ve seen in terms of quality for many years.”
George III Mahogany “Gothick” library desk
This magnificent “Gothick” library desk is thought to have been commissioned by Sir Samuel Greatheed, the eldest son and heir of a West Indies-based merchant, between 1760 and 1775. The trend for Gothic furniture was likely to have been inspired by Batty Langley’s Gothic Architecture, first published in 1742. Just a few years later, between 1750 and 1765, Thomas Chippendale and other cabinet makers were producing many items of Gothic furniture to meet customer demand.
Library tables were described by Chippendale as having “doors on one side of the table, and upright sliding partitions (to answer the different sizes of books) and drawers on the other side. They frequently stand in the middle of a room, which requires both sides to be made useful.”
The pull-out slides are present on this impressive example, which expert and author Christopher Gilbert speculatively attributes to Chippendale the Younger (Chippendale’s son, also named Thomas). It was likely commissioned for either Sir Greatheed’s country seat of Guy’s Cliffe in Warwickshire, England, or his London townhouse in Hanover Square. Following his death in 1765, the desk remained in Greatheed’s family and it was pictured in situ at Guy’s Cliffe in 1925.
A Regence Ormolu-mounted Chinese polychrome lacquer and enamel cartel clock
This wonderful Regence clock, created in Paris circa 1730, was likely to have been a gift to Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795) from the French royal court. Applied with a central seal with the Qianlong incised four-character mark “Qianlong Nian Zh,” it was once part of the Imperial collection of timepieces located in Beijing. The clock also features a fleur-de-lys band and a dial decorated with a globe showing France on one side and China on the other.
By the mid-17th century, European monarchies understood the economic benefits of good relations with China, a country rich in tea, spices, silk, and porcelain. For France, it was during the reign of Louis XIV that considerable interest in China developed. Supported by his ministers, the King launched a proactive diplomatic and scientific policy in a bid to build close ties with the country. This remarkable clock is almost certainly a rare example of the earliest of diplomatic gifts sent from France to the Qianlong Emperor.
Banner image: Leonardo da Vinci’s Head of a Bear. Alamy