Despite Drawing Measured Interest From Only Three Bidders, Sandro Botticelli’s ‘Man of Sorrows’ Sells for $45 Million

The work, long believed to be by assistants in the artist's studio, was reattributed to Botticelli in 2009.

Sandro Botticelli, The Man of Sorrows. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Almost a year to the day after Sotheby’s set a new auction record for a work by the Renaissance Old Master Sandro Botticelli, it sold another work attributed to him for $45.4 million, making it the artist’s second-highest sale total ever.

Yet there was arguably lackluster competition for Man of Sorrows, which was billed as a star lot and hammered at $39.3 million, short of its estimate, which was published at “in excess of $40 million.”

The bidding contest was also somewhat unusual.

Auctioneer David Pollack opened the action at $32 million and called out bids in increments of $1 million. When the work reached just around $38 million, there three bidders, first from a client on the phone with Sotheby’s specialist Alex Bell, and next with a client bidding through Sotheby’s Old Masters specialist Elisabeth Lobkowicz. She called out a bid of $38.2 million, a considerably milder price increase. 

Lobkowicz competed with Old Masters department head Christopher Apostle up to around $39.2 million, when she dropped out of contention. But her client jumped back in with a final bid of $39.3 million that made Apostle’s collector balk, ostensibly leaving Lobkowicz with the lot.

But because the picture was guaranteed with an irrevocable bid, it isn’t clear whether the third-party backer ultimately won the work.

When Sotheby’s unveiled the picture last fall, it did so in Hong Kong, a reflection of what the auction house said is increasing interest in the Old Masters genre from Asian buyers.

In preparation for the sale, the painting underwent technical analysis by Sotheby’s in-house research team, during which an earlier composition, possibly for an entirely different image, was found hidden beneath the painting. The analysis also revealed discernable changes in the rendering of Christ’s hands.

The work, which was long considered to be a work by Botticelli’s workshop, was reattributed in 2009 on the occasion of “Botticelli: Likeness, Myth, Devotion,” an exhibition at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt. The elevation of the work to signature status was further endorsed by Keith Christiansen, then chairman of European painting at the Metrpolitan Museum of Art, and Laurence Kanter, the head of European art at the Yale University Art Gallery.

Even though the painting sold for just a fraction of the whopping $92.2 million that one collector paid for Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel at Sotheby’s last year, it still reflects how rarely works like this surface to the market.

The drop to the third-highest price in the artist’s auction history is just as steep. Madonna and Child with Young Saint John the Baptist sold for $10.4 million at Christie’s New York in 2013, according to the Artnet Price Database.

In a catalogue essay for Man of Sorrows, Sotheby’s described the work as “profoundly arresting and highly original” and a “defining masterpiece from the artist’s late career.”

The work dates to the cusp of the sixteenth century when, after political and religious uprisings in Florence, Botticelli’s pictorial language became more somber and spiritual. The elevated status of the picture in the eyes of art historians reflects attempts at a more nuanced reading of Botticelli’s paintings, and particularly the works of his late years.

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