In Focus: The dusty old drawing set to make £200 at auction… and how it eventually sold for £400,000

Huon Mallalieu tells the tale of an auction which went haywire for a forgotten drawing which turned out to have an astonishing story.

When the bidding for a charcoal drawing originally estimated to $200-$300 in the October sale at Marion’s Antique Auction in Massachusetts rose to $200,000, the auctioneer admitted: ‘Well, I guess we underestimated that one a bit.’

Even then he spoke too soon, as the final price was $514,800 — around £400,000.

To be fair, such was the pre-sale interest that, by the time bidding opened, a more realistic figure of about $80,000 was being suggested.

The 12½in by 11½in drawing was on slightly foxed paper, but the catalogue admitted that it had not been examined out of the frame — something that would have earned a rebuke in my auction-house days, even for a low-value item. It was of a military gentleman, was initialled I. L. and dated 1652.

…until keen-eyed observers realised that this signature suggested it could be something very different.

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As many of the 2,000 would-be bidders from five countries spread over three websites had realised, this could be a work by Jan Lievens (1607–74), with whom the young Rembrandt shared a studio.

Moreover, the sitter was a very distinguished military figure — none other than Admiral Maarten Tromp (1598–1653), the sometime slave who rose to command the Dutch navy and fought the Spanish, assorted pirates and the English.

The lack of detail and finish in the drawing could indicate that it was made in connection with a print that was engraved after Lievens’s oil painting of the admiral. It had come to sale as a late entry from a local estate and it was eventually bought by a dealer from ‘the Connecticut/New York area’.

‘I knew it was going to fly, but I didn’t think it was going to go for that much,’ auctioneer Frank McNamee told Tim Seeberger of local news website

Jan Lievens, 1607 –1674 the Dutch painter who rubbed shoulders with Rembrandt.

Frank added that the signature got him wondering, hence his decision to start advertising the auction across the world. Before long dealers from across the globe were getting in touch. ‘The phone started ringing and I knew,’ he added.

The hammer finally fell at $440,000, or $514,800 with fees — the record sale for Marion Antique Auctions, whose previous best had been the previous $300,000 sale of an Edgar Allan Poe anuscript.