The Art Newspaper (and Kenny Schachter) are having a lot of fun with this story of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York buying a drawing that was assumed to be a copy of David’s Death of Socrates that the museum’s authorities believe now to be a preparatory study. The fact the chalk work was purchased for $840 at Swann seems to suggest that connoisseurship is mightier than money. But another reading, based upon recent Old Master sales, may simply be that the lassitude in the Old Master market allowed the work to go unnoticed:
At first glance, the newly acquired drawing may appear to be a copy, but considerable changes in setting and in the positions and gestures of the figures indicate that it is, rather, a previously unrecorded preliminary compositional study for the painting.
For instance, in the painting and in a highly finished chalk drawing by David (bought by the Met from Wildenstein in 1961), the seated figure of Crito reaches out imploringly to grasp Socrates’s thigh: in the earlier drawing, Crito merely looks up, holding a large open book on his lap. George Goldner, the museum’s curator of drawings, says: “Several curators in the department—Perrin Stein and Stijn Allsteens—noticed this. The drawing style is typical of David. It was obvious we had to have it.”
Compositional drawings by David are highly sought after. In 2006, the Met bought a study for The Lictors Bringing Brutus the Bodies of his Sons, 1787, which had been auctioned in Paris the previous year for €510,000. Despite all the sleeper-seeking drawing dealers and curators in town, nobody else spotted Socrates at Swann—and the Met snapped it up, via the museum’s frequent agent Katrin Bellinger, for its high estimate of $700 ($840 with premium).