A small painting by Sandro Botticelli fetched $ 92.2 million on Thursday at Sotheby’s in the first major test of the new year on the art market.
The result, an auction record for the Renaissance painter, was also the highest price paid for an old masterpiece since Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” sold for $ 450 million in 2017. It was also a godsend for the founding of billionaire Sheldon Solow.The proceeds from the sale can be used to build a private museum in Manhattan.
“It’s a wonderful painting,” said Marc Porter, chairman of Christie’s in America, this week. “It’s very attractive and seductive and undoubtedly rare. And the question for the market is whether this pursuit of extremely rare, engaging commercial artwork, even in the depths of the Covid-19 emergency, will continue to attract large numbers of bidders. “
For now, at least, the answer is positive. The bid for the auction, which was broadcast live from New York, lasted only 4.5 minutes and only attracted two competitors. The winning bid was submitted by Lilija Sitnika, a London-based employee who works with Russian customers. The underbidder was from Asia, Sotheby’s said, and declined to elaborate. The work was valued at more than $ 80 million. (The final price included the surcharge.)
Sotheby’s spent four months on its marketing campaign, exhibiting the painting in Los Angeles, London and Dubai, and publishing a nearly 100-page catalog of scientific papers and technical analysis. International art buyers have taken note. Robert Simon, an old master dealer in New York, said a wealthy Hong Kong collector contacted him shortly after the Botticelli sale was announced in September. “I’ve never heard of him,” said Simon. “He wanted to know what I think of the painting.”
“There are some people with tremendous wealth,” added Simon, “and they look at paintings to diversify their wealth or just because they think it’s a great thing to own.”
The Botticelli, “Portrait of a Young Man with a Roundel”, dates from around 1480. Although the identity of the subject is not known, it is believed that he is a member of the powerful Medici family. His long fingers reach for a round, gold-polished painting of a saint, which is attributed to the Sienese painter Bartolomeo Bulgarini from the 14th century and, according to Sotheby’s, is inserted into the Botticelli canvas.
The supplement and the youth of the motif are unusual for Botticelli, said Keith Christiansen, chairman of the European painting department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the work had been loaned twice, most recently from 2013 to 2020.
“There is all sorts of speculation about his identity, but there is no way of knowing who he is,” Christiansen said in an interview. “He’s certainly a member of a wealthy family, because those were the only people who had their portraits drawn.”
The painting spent decades in museums. Before the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was in the National Gallery of Art in Washington for 23 years, according to Sotheby’s provenance. While it was sold anonymously, for much of that time it was also listed on tax documents as a property of the Solow Art and Architecture Foundation.
Over the years scholars have questioned the attribution of the work to Botticelli. It is still unclear when the tondo of the saint was inserted and the subject remains “perhaps the most debated question about the painting” according to Sotheby’s catalog. Such doubts are common with old master paintings. What makes Botticelli more complicated is that centuries after his death the artist was completely forgotten, said Mark Evans, senior curator of painting at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The artist was rediscovered by Pre-Raphaelite painters in the 19th century and has been one of the most recognizable names in art history ever since.
Only three “moving” Botticelli works – two paintings and one drawing – have documentation that leads directly to the artist, said Evans, co-curator of the “Botticelli Reimagined” exhibition for the museum in 2016. “Almost 90 percent by Botticellis Oeuvre consists of ascription. What we know for sure about paintings from the 15th century is often very little. In the case of Botticelli, almost nothing was remembered of him 200 years ago. ”
But the whims of science often do not stand in the way of astronomical prices, as was the case with “Salvator Mundi”, which is still the most expensive work of art ever to be sold.
Botticelli’s “Young Man” could have an even broader appeal, said art consultant Beverly Schreiber Jacoby, president of BSJ Fine Art in New York.
“It’s not religious,” she said. “It is a beautiful youth of high birth and manners. You don’t have to be a collector of old master paintings to want to buy them. It appeals to the broadest possible audience. “