An Elderly French Man’s Rare Leonardo Drawing Has Been Granted an Export License After He Declined a $10.6 Million Offer From the Louvre

France's Culture Ministry had deemed the work a national treasure and attempted to buy it.

The front and back of a drawing Study for a Saint Sebastian in a Landscape by Leonardo da Vinci are seen. Photo courtesy of Tajan

The Paris Administrative Court has ordered France’s Culture Ministry to issue an export certificate to allow a drawing attributed to Leonardo da Vinci to leave the country after a yearslong dispute.

The drawing, Study for a Saint Sebastian in a Landscape, was made on a double-sided sheet and depicts the martyred Saint Sebastian tied to a tree in a landscape on the front and contains notes and diagrams about light and shadow, relating to da Vinci’s study of optics, on the back.

The standoff between the owner of the work, identified in court documents by the initials A.B., and the ministry began after he first planned to put the drawing up for auction at Tajan in 2016 and applied for an export certificate, according to court documents translated from French.

The owner was further identified by Le Monde, which first reported the news, as a retired doctor and octogenarian who said he had kept the “tiny” drawing in a box for half a century after inheriting it from his father. Countries use export licensing systems to keep track of cultural goods that might be deemed at risk or of national importance and, as such, should not be exported without review.

The French Culture Ministry denied the application on the grounds that the “precious sheet” had status has a national treasure and sent a letter to A.B. offering €10 million ($10.6 million), to purchase the work on behalf of the Louvre Museum. A.B. declined the offer.

The drawing was subsequently appraised at about $15.6 million by two specialists, one each appointed by the ministry and the owner. The French Culture Ministry sent a letter to the owner in 2020 stating it would not seek to purchase the drawing.

The owner submitted a new request for an export certificate, but at that point former culture minister Roselyn Bachelot seemingly tried to strong-arm him into giving up the work, in a letter in January 2021.

“[Bachelot] informed Mr. B that she considered that there were serious and concordant presumptions that the drawing had been the result of a crime, in this case theft, and asked him…to justify the lawful origin of the property,” court documents state.

The owner shot a letter back through his lawyer that disputed the ministry’s accusation of theft, before again seeking to obtain an export certificate, according to the court documents. The ministry never responded and remained silent on the issue, so the owner ultimately filed a complaint with the court seeking an injunction compelling the ministry to provide the certificate.

The court issued its judgement on Friday, siding with the owner. The court demanded that the French Culture Ministry issue the export license within two months and charged the state €2,000 for the owner’s litigation costs.

Tajan, the auction house, had announced the public exhibition of the work in June 2017. At the time, Tajan heralded the drawing as an “extraordinary discovery” made with the assistance of Old Master drawings expert Patrick de Bayser.

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