The Metropolitan Museum of Art's purchase of a previously unknown drawing by the Netherlandish artist Lucas van Leyden is a coup for the museum and its visitors, but something of an embarrassment for Christie's, whose specialists overlooked the drawing when it was sold there in 2005.
The 16th-century drawing, depicting the Archangel Gabriel, was sold at a sale of "Maritime Pictures and Watercolours" at Christie's South Kensington in June 2005. It was included in an album of landscape sketches by the 19th-century British watercolorist William Frederick Witherington. The catalog description ó which is still available on Christie's Web site ó noted that the album contained in addition to the sketches "an unframed old master drawing by another hand." The group sold to an unidentified collector for $393.
That collector later sold the drawing to another buyer, who noticed the inscription "L van Leyden" written in pencil on the back. After looking up the name and learning that Lucas van Leyden was a successful 16th-century artist, the then-owner took the drawing to the head of old master drawings at Sotheby's, Gregory Rubinstein. Mr. Rubinstein, who is an authority on Dutch art, believed there was a good chance that the drawing really was a Lucas. After consulting with experts at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, they and he decided that it was in fact part of a matched pair (known as a pendant) with a well-known Lucas drawing of the Virgin Mary.
The Met purchased the drawing with a combination of museum funds and a gift from a Met trustee, Leon Black, and his wife Debra. The deal was brokered by Sotheby's. The museum declined to say what it paid, but it's reasonable to assume that it was thousands, if not tens of thousands, more than what the buyer at Christie's paid in 2005.
Asked how Christie's specialists could have overlooked the drawing, given its inscription (there is also an "L" signed on the front), a spokesman, Rik Pike, said by e-mail that the auction house "has in place a rigorous set of guidelines concerning cataloguing, and we are currently looking into this matter."
Asked whether the seller of the album of sketches had contacted Christie's to complain since the Met announced its acquisition, Mr. Pike declined to say, citing a policy of not discussing client matters.