Legal battle between state and collector over a Leonardo drawing in France

A fierce legal battle has broken out in France between the state and a collector around a drawing by Leonardo: the collector would like to sell it to a foreigner, but the state denies permission to export the work.

A battle is raging in France around the sale of a pen drawing by Leonardo da Vinci (Vinci, 1452 - Amboise, 1519): one that pits the work’s owner (a certain “Jean B.,” AFP news agency reports) against the French Ministry of Culture. In October, a Paris court will rule on the work’s fate, deciding whether Leonardo’s Saint Sebastian can leave France to be purchased by a foreign buyer. Jean B. (who specifically asked the press not to be named by his full last name) is an 80-year-old man who, as he let AFP know, received the drawing as a gift from his father in 1959 (neither of them knew it was by Leonardo), after passing a medical exam that had opened the doors to his profession (the man is in fact a retired doctor). However, as he always told the agency, he was more interested in rock music than art at the time, and consequently put the paper aside, forgetting about it for more than half a century.

He would find it again in 2016, during a move, and decided to show it to the Tajan auction house to get an appraisal. At the time it was examined by Thaddée Prate, head of Tajan’s Old Masters department, who advanced an estimate of 20-30,000 euros. However, another expert, Patrick de Bayser, attributed the drawing to Leonardo da Vinci shortly thereafter, and the attribution was later confirmed by Carmen Bambach, a leading scholar and specialist on Leonardo’s drawings (“the attribution is almost incontestable,” she had reported to the New York Times in December 2016: “what we are dealing with is an easy case. An exciting discovery.”) According to Bambach, the drawing dates to a period between 1482 and 1485, during Leonardo’s early years in Milan, at the time of the creation of the Virgin of the Rocks.

The value of the drawing has thus risen sharply, reaching an estimate of between 8 and 12 million euros. And because the discovery of a new drawing by Leonardo is a truly exceptional event, the French state declared the drawing a “national treasure” (the homologue of the constraint of cultural interest in Italy), thus giving itself the 30-month statutory time to exercise the right of first refusal in order to purchase it and allocate it to the Louvre. The state offered Jean B. the sum of 10 million euros, but following a new estimate (15 million), the collector refused, and applied for an export permit in order to sell the work to a foreign buyer. The ministry, for its part, denied permission, and now the collector has decided to take Culture Minister Roselyne Bachleot and the deputy director of ministerial collections, Claire Chastanier, to court with the aim of succeeding in obtaining the export license.

According to Jean B.’s lawyer Olivier Baratelli, the export denial is unjustified. “A ministry of culture worthy of its name,” he told AFP, “would have made sure that the French state bought the drawing.” And that’s not all: the collector is in fact also fighting on another front, against the auction house Tajan. Jean B. has in fact revoked the auction house’s mandate, which in turn has sued the collector for breach of contract, asking him to compensate the company for the work done on his behalf (Tajan claims in fact that the drawing was discovered, authenticated and certified thanks to the auction house’s work).

Pictured is the drawing

Legal battle between state and collector over a Leonardo drawing in France
Legal battle between state and collector over a Leonardo drawing in France

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