MANHATTAN (CN) - A Swiss woman says she is "devastated" because Christie's misattributed a consigned drawing as a 19th century German imitation of Renaissance art and sold it at auction for less than $20,000. Art historians and forensic experts now believe Leonardo da Vinci drew the ink portrait and valued it at more than $150 million, according to her complaint in Federal Court.
Jeanne Marchig claims she told Christie's that her late husband, Giannino, "a well-known art restorer with considerable expertise in Renaissance art," suspected the pen-and-ink portrait was drawn by Domenico Ghirlandaio, a teacher of Michelangelo. Ghirlandaio was apprenticed under the same master at the same time as Leonardo da Vinci, according to the complaint.
Francois Borne, Christie's resident expert for Old Master drawings, examined the piece for 15 minutes and "summarily rejected" the Renaissance provenance, according to the complaint.
Marchig's attorney, Richard Altman, translated the letter in French that Borne wrote to Marchig, in which he claims the drawing was done in the 19th century by an anonymous German artist.
Borne wrote to Marchig that he was fascinated by her "superb German drawing in the taste of the Italian Renaissance," adding that it would sell for $12,000 to $15,000, according to the complaint.
"As I told you, I would be tempted to change the frame in order to make it seem an amateur object of the 19th century and not an Italian pastiche
," Borne wrote, according to Altman's translation.
Though Marchig never agreed to Borne's suggestion, she says Christie's sold the painting with a different frame and never returned the original Italian frame.
The drawing, on vellum, depicts the profile of an aristocratic Milanese woman. The piece is now called "La Bella Principessa."
Vellum was not often used after canvas and paper became common in the 16th century, according to the complaint.
Altman said in an interview that Christie's "simply refused to pay any attention to what (Marchig's) husband thought."
"They basically said, 'This is our way, this is how it's going to appear, and if you don't like it, we won't sell it,'" Altman said.
He added that Marchig went ahead with the sale because she had had a long relationship with Christie's.
"There was a sense of loyalty to each other," Altman said.
Christie's sold the drawing for $21,850 in 1998 to Kate Ganz, a New York City art dealer, who resold it to a collector for $22,000, according to the complaint.
The buyer, Peter Silverman, reportedly followed a hunch that the drawing was misattributed and has collected evidence that da Vinci created the artwork, according to the complaint.
Altman says an art historian from Oxford University and an engineer presented evidence that the drawing is a da Vinci in a book they published in April, titled "La Bella Principessa: The Story of the New Masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci."
The engineer, Pascal Cotte, works with a company that used a high-definition camera to identify the fragment of a fingerprint on the drawing.
A forensic art expert then matched the fingerprint to one found on da Vinci's "St. Jerome" in the Vatican.
Carbon dating also indicates that the drawing is at least 300 years older than Borne estimated, and art historians have come forward to certify the painting, according to the complaint.
"Marchig was devastated by this news, and shocked that defendant had failed to attribute the drawing properly before selling it on her behalf," the complaint states.
Christie's has denied wrongdoing.
"While we have great respect for Mrs. Marchig, Christie's strongly disagrees with these claims," a spokesperson for the auction house said.
Allesandro Vezzosi, author of "Leonardo Infinito," spoke about Christie's alleged misattribution to Time magazine.
"There is some embarrassment out there," Vezzosi told Time. "Just looking at it, you know it isn't German."
The complaint summarizes it this way: "The drawing sold at a price far below its actual value, solely because of defendant's willful refusal and failure to investigate plaintiffs' believed attribution, to comply with its fiduciary obligations to plaintiffs, its negligence, its breach of warrant to attribute the drawing correctly, and its making of false statements in connection with the auction and sale."
Altman says Marchig is dismayed at having to file suit against Christie's, alleging breach of fiduciary duty, breach of warranty and negligence.
"She was reluctant to do this. She just didn't feel that she wanted to get involved in a court battle with them," Altman said. "But ultimately, she felt that she had a claim and that she wanted to pursue it."
Co-plaintiff with Marchig is The Marchig Animal Welfare Trust.