French Man Wins Years-Long Battle To Sell $15.6 M. Leonardo Da Vinci Drawing

A mysterious man in his 80s has won a years-long battle against the French Ministry of Culture for the right to sell a rare drawing of Saint Sebastian by Leonardo da Vinci that he inherited from his father, Artnet News reported Tuesday.

Identified in court documents by the initials A.B., the man approached the French government in 2016 to request an export license for the drawing, a two-sided sketch of Saint Sebastian tied to a tree. On the backside are notes and diagrams pertaining to da Vinci’s study of light and shadow. He planned to sell the drawing at TAJAN auction house in Paris.

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In a painting, a woman is seen from just above her chest. She gazes at the viewer with a mysterious smile, and a deep landscape looms behind her.

French law requires sellers to obtain export licenses for extremely valuable works of art and cultural goods that may be considered “of national importance.” It also provides France the right to match any offer made on a work for sale before it leaves the country.

The French Ministry of Culture initially denied the export license request on the grounds that the da Vinci drawing was a national treasure and offered to buy the work on behalf of the Louvre for €10 million ($10.6 million). A.B. turned the offer down. 

Later, the work was appraised by a pair of specialists, one representing the ministry and other representing A.B., and was deemed to be worth roughly $15.6 million. The ministry chose not to pursue the drawing further, at least not in a traditional way. When A.B. applied for a new export license in 2021, Roselyn Bachelot, who was then-minister of culture, sent A.B. a letter implying the work was stolen and demanded he prove the drawing was acquired legally. 

Through an attorney, A.B. fought the accusation via a letter to the ministry before once again applying for an export license. Bachelot’s ministry ignored A.B.’s request, forcing him to seek an injunction via the court system that would compel the ministry to provide the certificate.

Last week, the court granted the injunction, demanding the ministry grant the export license within 60 days and cover A.B.’s €2,000 ($2,120) legal costs.

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