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Michelangelo Scribble sells for $200,000

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Diagram of a rectangular block of marble by Michelangelo Buonarroti, via Christie’s and AFP

Found on the back of a frame, a small scribble by Michelangelo, sold at Christie’s in New York for $201,600, far exceeding its estimate of $6,000 to $8,000. Although the Italian Renaissance master did not sign the 1.8 by 6.5 cm piece of yellowed paper, experts at Christie’s attributed the drawing to his hand thanks to its well-documented provenance. Accompanied by a handwritten letter from Michelangelo’s last known descendant, the drawing was auctioned to an unknown private buyer on April 17 after a long bidding war.

The six-digit scribble

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Diagram of a rectangular block of marble by Michelangelo Buonarroti and the accompanying letter, via Christie’s

Michelangelo’s diminutive drawing is a diagram of a block of marble. The word ‘simile’ (Italian for ‘similar’) is written all over the block. The drawing, made around the time Michelangelo was working on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, was probably part of a larger sheet of corresponding diagrams.

Experts on Old Master drawings at Christie’s discovered the tiny scribble last year while examining another work: a framed drawing attributed to an associate of Michelangelo that was sold at Christie’s in 1986. The drawing and a handwritten letter were found taped to the back of the frame, which belongs to a private collection. The letter was written in 1836 by Cosimo Buonarroti, a descendant of Michelangelo, to Sir John Bowring, a British economist who later became governor of Hong Kong. It offers Browning the attached drawing of Buonarroti’s ‘illustrious ancestor Michelangelo’.

What do marble block diagrams tell us?

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Example of a sheet of marble block diagram sketches by Michelangelo Buonarroti, ca. 1517, via Museums of Fine Arts of San Francisco

Centuries after its creation, a deceptively simple marble block diagram can provide important insight into an artist’s sculptural process. Michelangelo was known to fill sheets of paper with sketches of marble blocks for monumental projects such as the Sagrestia Nuova and the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence, and the tomb of Pope Julius II in Rome. He carefully recorded the size and shape of the various marble blocks on these slabs, as well as their costs and transportation requirements.

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Michelangelo destroyed most of his sketches and drawings before his death in 1564, making Christie’s auction lot particularly valuable. Most of his surviving marble block diagrams are owned by Casa Buonarroti, the Florence museum dedicated to the artist. They are considered important because they demonstrate his technical precision and visionary creativity at every stage of the artistic process, from preparatory studies to final measurements.

Michelangelo’s market value

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Nude drawing (after Masaccio) by Michelangelo Buonarroti, via Christie’s

According to Christie’s, fewer than ten works by Michelangelo are owned by private collections. It is not unusual for his work to sell well above the asking price at auction. The last time a Michelangelo diagram sketch appeared at auction was at Christie’s in 2008. The official estimate was between $12,500 and $18,800, and it sold for $90,000. In 2022, a figurative sketch, believed to be the artist’s first known nude, sold for $24 million, more than doubling the previous record for a Michelangelo drawing sold at auction.