The Penitent Magdalene, a half-length oil on panel portrait measuring 2ft 1in x 20in (65 x 51cm) and dated to c.1515-20, was the object of sustained bidding between phones at the auction held behind closed doors in Paris.
Estimated at €100,000-150,000 at the auction on November 18, it was finally hammered down to an American collector for €1.4m (£1.27m), setting a new auction record for the artist.
Gian Giacomo Caprotti (1480-1524) – Salai – entered Leonardo’s workshop aged 10 and spent over 25 years working with his famous master.
Only a handful of works by Salai are known. The previous auction high for a work by him was the $550,000 paid in 2007 at Sotheby’s New York for his signed and dated portrait of the Head of Christ (source: Artprice by Artmarket), an oil on panel of 1511 that was donated to the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan in 2013.
Artcurial’s panel has been identified as a Salai work by the art historian Cristina Geddo, an expert on 16th century Lombard school painting, after Geddo compared the work to the Head of Christ in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana.
“The painting was sent to us without attribution,” said Matthieu Fournier, Artcurial’s specialist and associate director.
“At first we thought it might be a work by Giampetrino but as we dug deeper we came into contact with Cristina Geddo who revealed that the painting was a work by Salai.”
Giampetrino was another Lombard school artist and thought to be a pupil of Leonardo.
The second-highest price of the auction was paid for an oil on canvas of a fishing boat by Jean-François Millet (1814-75) painted when the artist returned to Brittany in 1870. Previewed in ATG No 2468, it went to a European collector for €400,000 (£363,635).
It was followed by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s (1827-75) oil on canvas Pourquoi naître esclave? (Why Born Enslaved?). This 2ft 1in x 21in (65 x 54cm) portrait is a painted interpretation by Carpeaux of one of his own sculptures, a marble bust inscribed with this title that he exhibited at the Salon of 1869, 20 years after the second abolition of slavery in France.
The Artcurial canvas, one of a small group of paintings made by the sculptor after his own works, made a multiple estimate price of €240,000 (£218,180), selling to an Asian collector.
The auction also included several institutional purchases, among them a pair of 2ft 2in x 21in (66.5 x 55cm) oils on canvas by Charles Le Brun (1619-90) and his workshop depicting The Nations of Asia and The Nations of Africa. They were pre-empted by the Château of Versailles for €150,000 (£136,363).
£1 = €1.10