The French Government’s Epic Battle to Prevent a Collector From Selling a $18 Million Leonardo Drawing Is Just Heating Up

The French ministry of culture has blocked the export of the drawing.

A member of Paris auctioneer Tajan displays a previously undiscovered drawing by Leonardo da Vinci at the auction house in Paris on December 13, 2016. Photo by Philippe Lopez/AFP via Getty Images.
A member of Paris auctioneer Tajan displays a previously undiscovered drawing by Leonardo da Vinci at the auction house in Paris on December 13, 2016. Photo by Philippe Lopez/AFP via Getty Images.

A long-running legal battle between a French collector and the country’s ministry of culture over the right to export a long-lost Leonardo drawing for sale has been extended after a court postponed a hearing on the matter until the fall.

Collector Jean B., a retired doctor who has not been publicly identified, owned the small pen-and-ink study of Saint Sebastian for decades without knowing it was a Leonardo.

His father gifted him the work in the late 1950s to congratulate him for passing his medical exams, according to AFP. But it lay forgotten in a box with other drawings and etchings for years.

The saga began in 2016, when the collector brought the work in for valuation at the French auction house Tajan. After a cursory inspection, the house’s head of Old Masters, Thadee Prate, allegedly valued it at between €20,000 and €30,000 ($17,000 to $25,000). (The auction house denies that it provided this figure.)

But after consulting with two further experts, an independent Old Masters specialist, Patrick de Bayser, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s curator of Italian drawings, Carmen Bambach, the house eventually concluded that the drawing was actually by the hand of Leonardo da Vinci. Its valuation soared to €15 million ($18 million).

The collector’s planned sale of the work was thwarted by the French government, which declared it a national treasure in December 2016, banning its export from the country for 30 months while national institutions could gather the funds to make an offer to buy the work at fair-market value.

The ministry of culture eventually offered to buy the drawing for €10 million, but the collector refused based on the higher valuation, and applied for a permit to export the work for sale abroad. The ministry declined to grant the request, citing a complaint filed in late 2020 saying the work was stolen. 

A lawyer for the government has said the ministry has simply suspended its final decision until the criminal investigation into the 2020 complaint has been completed.

The collector has now summoned culture minister Roselyne Bachelot and the ministry’s deputy director of collections, Claire Chastanier, to court in an effort to get them to grant the export licence. The case was finally heard yesterday, July 7, but was adjourned until October 27. The French state, according to Jean B.’s lawyers, has three months to provide justification for its refusal to issue an export certificate. 

Meanwhile, Jean B. and his lawyers will have to justify taking the case before a civil court instead of an administrative one, as would be normal for a dispute between the state and a private individual.

One of the lawyers representing the collector, Olivier Baratelli, told Artnet News that he was ”delighted” with the postponement.

“This will finally allow the French state to provide explanations for its unjustifiable refusal,” he said.

The culture ministry did not reply to Artnet News’s request for comment.

Meanwhile, the collector is separately battling the auction house where he first planned to sell the work. Jean B. has revoked Tajan’s right to sell the work, but the auction house has refused to return the drawing, saying he owes payment for costs the company incurred since it began researching the work in 2016.

This drawing has been discovered, authenticated, certified, and promoted through the long, laborious work of the Tajan team during the last five years,” a representative of the auction house told Artnet News. “In the event that the drawing is not sold by Tajan, it will only be released if and when the total costs, fees and damages incurred by Tajan are fully reimbursed.”

The owner sued to recover the work free of charge in 2020, but the claim was dismissed. He has subsequently brought a case against the house for charges of ”blackmail, breach of trust, and attempted extortion,” allegations the auction house has dismissed as “imaginary” and initiated a counter-suit for slander.

Tajan is now suing the collector for some €2 million to recover costs. The case will be heard in December.

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