This week, an international panel of art experts gathered at the British Museum to discuss a work whose very existence one attendee described as “a dream” — a previously unknown drawing by the Renaissance master Albrecht Dürer that some believe could fetch $50 million at market.
That would be quite a markup for the diminutive pen-and-ink drawing, which last sold around 2016 at an estate sale in Concord for $30.
The drawing, titled “The Virgin and Child with a Flower on a grassy Bench,” is being heralded as one of the most significant finds in memory. About the size of a children’s board book, the China ink drawing depicts an intimate scene where a seated Mary, dressed in flowing robes, holds the Christ child, who observes her intently.
“I was completely astonished,” said Christof Metzger, a Dürer specialist and chief curator at the Albertina Museum in Vienna, which houses one of the world’s most important troves of the artist’s drawings. “For me there’s absolutely no doubt that this is an original by Albrecht Dürer from around 1503.”
The discovery hinges on the unlikely meeting of two men: Clifford Schorer, an entrepreneur and art dealer who specializes in recovering the lost works of Old Masters, and Brainerd Phillipson, a rare books seller from Holliston who knows the original buyer.
It was 2019, and Schorer was running late to a retirement party for Amy Meyers, former director of the Yale Center for British Art. Realizing he’d forgotten his gift for her, Schorer Googled rare book dealers in the area, landing upon Phillipson, who works out of his home and relies, in part, on a network of scouts to discover new finds.
Schorer purchased a three-volume set of writings by William Blake, but as he was leaving, Phillipson mentioned he had a friend with a drawing they suspected was by Dürer.
“No you don’t,” Schorer recalled telling him. “You have a friend who has an Albrecht Dürer engraving.”
Engravings typically have many printed copies and comprise much of Dürer’s oeuvre; a drawing, by contrast, is unique — and potentially much more valuable. Nevertheless, the art dealer, who declined to identify the drawing’s original buyer to protect his privacy, agreed to look at the work, taking Phillipson’s card before he left.
“I got the feeling he totally dismissed me,” said Phillipson, a former high school English teacher.
Schorer, a former board president at the Worcester Art Museum, said he wasn’t being clever.
“I was simply trying to correct something I knew to be false: It’s impossible that his friend has an Albrecht Dürer drawing.”
Widely regarded as the most gifted Renaissance artist of Northern Europe, Dürer is perhaps best known for his engravings and woodcuts, works of technical virtuosity found in museums the world over. The idea that a one-of-a-kind — and previously unknown — drawing by Dürer could emerge in the suburbs northwest of Boston seemed more than unlikely to Schorer — it defied imagination.
Now, some 10 days after first meeting the antiquarian bookseller, Schorer struggled to make sense of the small, pixelated photo the drawing’s owner had texted him. It was obviously a Virgin and Child scene, but Schorer would need a higher quality image if he was going to identify the work.
When his phone pinged again, the art dealer stopped cold: The image that appeared was impossible.
Schorer arrived at the owner’s central Massachusetts home within the hour. The house needed a new roof and was filled with estate sale collectibles, but there, on the dining room table, was a small pen-and-ink drawing of the Virgin and Child, a subject Dürer had returned to again and again during his career.
“I was completely speechless,” said Schorer, who has discovered numerous important works over the years. “I just sat dumbstruck for a while, trying to reconcile whether I was looking at the greatest forgery I’ve ever seen — or a masterpiece.”
By meeting’s end, Schorer said, they’d essentially negotiated a deal: Schorer would give the man and his wife a $100,000 cash advance, and Schorer would take the drawing to London, where he is a shareholder in the centuries-old Agnews Gallery. (Citing a confidentiality agreement, Schorer declined to elaborate on their financial arrangement: “Let’s just say I gave them three completely transparent options, and they chose their favorite.”)
In the coming months, Schorer traveled widely to consult with specialists across the United States and Europe who analyze inks, study historical pen nibs, and inspect old ownership records. He conferred with paper historians and conservators, watermark researchers, museum curators, printmakers, and art historians who specialize in the life and work of the artist, who died in 1528.
The drawing’s ownership history has been difficult to pin down, but Schorer believes it was at some point transferred to Paris, where in 1919 it entered the Maison Carlhian collection. The work passed down through the family, appearing in records from the 1950s, and eventually landing in Concord with Jean Paul Carlhian, a well-known Boston architect who designed the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, now part of the National Museum of Asian Art.
A few years after Carlhian’s death in 2012, his family held an estate sale, where the original buyer purchased the drawing for an amount less than some pay daily for parking in downtown Boston.
But the drawing’s biggest authentication test came when Schorer brought it to Jane McAusland, a preeminent paper conservator in England.
McAusland, who has worked on drawings in the queen’s collection at Windsor Castle, quickly identified several red flags with the artwork: Not only had someone attached several sheets of newer paper backing to the original drawing, they’d used a modern synthetic adhesive to do it. Equally troubling, it appeared someone had artificially aged the paper by applying small spots of coffee or tea.
“Oh gosh, this is a fake,” McAusland recalled thinking. “I was frightfully alarmed.”
As she continued to work, however, McAusland’s concerns began to dissipate: The original sheet was thin, very strong, and made of pure linen fiber — likely from northern Italy toward the end of the 15th century.
“That’s all good news for Cliff,” she said. “Dürer had been in northern Italy in the end of the 15th century, and this drawing is dated 1503.”
Even better news came when McAusland held the paper up to the light, revealing a faint watermark — the telltale trident and ring, found on 235 of Dürer’s drawings.
For the Albertina’s Metzger, the watermark is an extremely convincing piece of evidence.
“This watermark is only documented in the drawings of Albrecht Dürer,” said Metzger, who is working on a catalogue raisonné to chronicle all known works by the artist. “This has been for me very, very important proof that this drawing is from the time. It’s from Dürer’s hand.”
Metzger, who said he plans to include the new drawing in his forthcoming compendium, virtually joined more than a dozen international experts at the British Museum this week to discuss the work.
“It was really like a dream,” he said, recalling his first impression of the drawing. “I was completely astonished.”
But at least one art historian is not so sure. Fritz Koreny, a former curator at the Albertina, said that after inspecting the drawing, he’s convinced it is not by Dürer, but is rather the work of the artist’s most gifted pupil, Hans Baldung, known as Grien, who joined Dürer’s workshop in the early 16th century.
“It’s a beautiful drawing, but it is not by Dürer,” said Koreny, who published a book on the artist’s animal and plant studies in the 1980s. “It’s very close to Dürer. It’s made in his workshop.”
Koreny declined to specify why he disputes the attribution, saying he plans to publish an article of his own on the subject. He added that his opinion was based, at least in part, on some 50 years of connoisseurship.
“It’s the line,” he said, describing the artist’s technique. “It’s different from Dürer’s.”
Metzger dismissed the claim that “The Virgin and Child with a Flower on a grassy Bench” is the work of Dürer’s star student, writing in a subsequent e-mail that the drawing has “nothing to do with Baldung’s early style.”
He added that Dürer made numerous drawings of the seated Virgin around this time, likely preparatory studies for a larger work that was either lost or never realized. The newly discovered drawing fits within that body of work, he said, noting Dürer regarded it “as a work of its own” by signing his monogram.
If those who support the attribution are correct, the drawing’s appearance would be among the rarest of marvels: Most of Dürer’s drawings are in museums, and while Metzger said around 24 are in private collections, it has been decades since a newly discovered Dürer drawing surfaced in the market.
In the meantime, Schorer is potentially looking at a major windfall. The drawing is currently consigned to Agnews Gallery in London, which is offering it for sale. And although Schorer said any estimates would be “speculative,” he said he believed the artwork could fetch a record price for an Old Master drawing.
“The record price being held presently is for Raphael at $47.5 million,” he added.
It could also be quite a payday for the drawing’s original buyer, whom rare book dealer Phillipson described as previously “somewhat impecunious,” spending his days trawling area estate sales and minor auction houses in search of overlooked treasures.
“He’s more interested in just buying stuff cheap,” said Phillipson, who said he had repeatedly urged his friend to get the drawing assessed. “I think we’re onto something.”