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Michelangelo Drawing Found at Cooper-Hewitt

NEW YORK, 11 July 2002 - The Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City has unearthed among its treasures an unsigned drawing by the legendary Italian renaissance sculptor, painter, draftsman, architect and poet Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). Scholars in the field have unanimously verified the authenticity of this rare and magnificent find. The work, one of the very few by Michelangelo known to reside in public or private collections in the United States, measures 43 by 25.4 cm. (17 1/16 by 10 inches) and is drawn using black chalk, brush and brown wash with incised line, on cream laid paper (lined). Making the discovery all the more remarkable is the pristine condition of this otherwise delicate artifact, dating back nearly five centuries.

The discovery was made in April by Sir Timothy Clifford, director of the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, during a sabbatical visit to the Cooper-Hewitt. A specialist in Italian decorative arts, Clifford accepted a personal invitation from Cooper-Hewitt Director Paul Warwick Thompson to view the museum’s impressive holdings of Italian drawings, which range from the Renaissance through the present. The invitation also presented Clifford with the opportunity to utilize the vast resources of the museum’s newly opened Drue Heinz Study Center for Drawings and Prints—one of the world’s premier repositories of European and American design.

The last known discovery in the United States of a Michelangelo drawing was in 1976, when a work within the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection (purchased in 1962) was attributed to the great master. Art dealer Richard Feigen estimates that the Cooper-Hewitt object is valued at $10 million-$12 million, based upon prior sales of other Michelangelo drawings, the most recent of which sold at Christie’s for $12 million.

The work was spotted by Clifford while sifting through a box containing light fixture designs by unknown artists. His careful scrutiny and analysis of the drawing indicated a distinctive style, and the use of idiosyncratic terminology, that favored one artist in particular—Michelangelo. Clifford theorizes that the work is a seven-branched candelabrum in the form of a menorah.

Michelangelo drawing found at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City

Commenting on his discovery, Clifford said: “To find a new drawing by Michelangelo is very exciting but to find a drawing by him of a menorah (the Hebrew seven light candlestick) and, moreover in New York, is almost incredible. With the new Drue Heinz Print Room opened this year, I am sure the Cooper-Hewitt will provide many other exciting finds.”

Michelangelo’s rendering indicates that the completed object is to be at least 6 feet tall. Clifford believes the drawing relates to the Medici tombs project and may add a rare and valuable insight to the many commissions undertaken by this genius in his lifetime.

Upon hearing of the discovery, Lawrence Small, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution declared, “We're delighted and thrilled by this discovery. A Michelangelo drawing enriches the Smithsonian's wonderful collections and gives us yet another opportunity to provide exciting cultural experiences to the American people."

Thompson added, “Sir Timothy Clifford has an unerring eye in this field. We always knew that the Cooper-Hewitt possessed one of the finest collections of drawings and prints in the United States- with works ranging from the Renaissance, a rich trove of 17th century Neapolitan drawings of architecture and ornament, Frederic Church, Homers, and Morans from the turn of the 19th century and beyond, into the 20th century, with architectural drawings by Le Corbusier. But to discover a Michelangelo amidst such treasures is really the gilding on the lily! To be one of only six public institutions in the United States to hold a work by Michelangelo is really extraordinary. And the manner in which the drawing was discovered is straight out of a children's story book.”

Michelangelo did not execute many drawings of decorative art objects. Consequently, museum scholars had previously hypothesized that this Cooper-Hewitt work was the inspired creation of Perino del Vaga (1501-1547), an Italian Renaissance artist known for his designs and prolific drawings of decorative objects. These contemporaries also displayed similar motifs and technique in their work, further obscuring the proper attribution. "The recognition of this drawing as a work by Michelangelo is important both for our understanding of the artist's body of work and of the history of design. Renaissance artists of the highest caliber were commissioned to design decorative objects such as lamps, salt cellars and tapestries,” said Dr. Sarah E. Lawrence, director of the Cooper-Hewitt Masters Program in the History of the Decorative Arts, and a scholar in Italian Renaissance decorative arts.

Extensive research was performed by Italian Renaissance art scholars, both domestically and abroad, to verify the authenticity of the work. Scholars who have corroborated Sir Timothy’s attribution to Michelangelo include: George Goldner, Drue Heinz chairman, Department of Drawings and Prints, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; William Griswold, associate director for collections, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; Michael Hirst, Courtauld Institute of Art, London; and Paul Joannides, professor of art history at the University of Cambridge, Cambridge.

The drawing’s former provenance is from a 1921 sale at Sotheby’s of London from the collection of Lord Amherst of Hackney. In 1942 the museum purchased the still anonymous masterpiece, simply identified as “Italian, circa 1530-1540”, from P & D Colnaghi,in memory of Mrs. John Innes Kane. The Michelangelo was purchased within a group of 5 goldsmith drawings for $60.

A press conference/viewing is scheduled for 23 July, at 10 at the museum. Sir Timothy Clifford, Paul Thompson and Sarah Lawrence will present the Michelangelo drawing and explain the significance of this discovery. At this time, Cooper-Hewitt officials are exploring all options for exhibiting the work.

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