In 2016, a sharp-eyed shopper at a Massachusetts estate sale bought a drawing on a whim. The square of unframed, yellowed linen featured an elegant sketch of a mother and child—and a modest $30 price tag, reports Martin Bailey for the Art Newspaper.
The man, who is choosing to remain anonymous, bought the artwork and stowed it in his home. Though the sketch bore one of the art world’s most well-known monograms—Albrecht Dürer’s “A.D.”—neither the buyer nor the sellers believed it was a genuine work by the German Renaissance artist. As the unnamed man tells Taylor Dafoe of Artnet News, he simply thought that it was “a wonderfully rendered piece of old art.”
Now, after careful study, multiple scholars say that the delicate ink sketch is an authentic Dürer drawing that could be worth upward of $50 million. It’s also an art historical rarity: Per the Art Newspaper, the sketch—likely a preparatory work for a circa 1506 painting—is the first “totally unknown” drawing by the artist to resurface since the 1970s.
Newly titled The Virgin and Child With a Flower on a Grassy Bench (1503), the work is on view at Agnews Gallery in London through December 12. The gallery plans to eventually sell the sketch but has not yet fixed a firm price. Given its estimated value, the drawing will likely be snapped up by a deep-pocketed institution or private collector.
The sketch was sold in 2016 by the daughters of the late architect Jean-Paul Carlhian. The work appears to have been passed down by the family, whose ancestors were art collectors in 19th-century France. The Carlhians had long assumed that the sketch was a modern reproduction—but Schorer had a different idea.
“It was an incredible moment when I saw the Dürer,” he tells the Art Newspaper. “It was either the greatest forgery I have ever seen—or a masterpiece.”
Experts consulted by Schorer identified two telltale features that pointed to the work’s authenticity. First, the artist inscribed his monogram with the same ink featured in the drawing. (According to a gallery statement, Dürer signed his initials this way on at least 20 other works completed between 1501 and 1514, asserting authorship in an early version of copyright.) Paper conservator Jane McAusland also found that the work was created on paper bearing a trident and ring watermark—the same motif seen on more than 200 sheets used by the artist.
Leading Dürer scholars Christof Metzger, head curator at the Albertina Museum in Vienna, and Giulia Bartrum, a former curator at the British Museum, have examined the work and deemed it authentic, according to the Art Newspaper. The pair posits that Dürer created the sketch in preparation for The Virgin Among a Multitude of Animals, a separate composition now housed at the Albertina.
The 1503 sketch depicts the Virgin Mary and her son Jesus Christ as a toddler. The two sit on a grassy knoll propped up by a rudimentary wooden fence. In contrast with these rustic surroundings, Mary wears a thick, draped cloak whose fine fur trim “spreads ... in opulent folds over the grassy ground,” per the statement.
Dürer depicted the Virgin and Child dozens of times throughout his career. Here, he departs from tradition, depicting the young Jesus as a squirming toddler rather than a well-behaved infant. The child twists away to the left of the frame, exposing his naked back and casting his own face into shadow.
“The effect of this is to give his full attention to his mother, while she is engaged, or even interrupted, by the viewer,” the statement says.
Last January, routine restoration work at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna revealed a previously unknown wall painting believed to be created by Dürer or his workshop. As Die Presse reported at the time, the two-dimensional triptych—long hidden in a section of the church that now functions as a gift shop—may have been commissioned by Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I.
Speaking with Bailey of the Art Newspaper, Dürer specialist Erwin Pokorny said he was “certain” the work’s underdrawings were painted by the master himself, as “none of Dürer’s assistants or followers were able to reach the quality of the underdrawing’s virtuoso brushstrokes.”