Will This Rare Botticelli Portrait Reset the Old Masters Market? A Renaissance ‘Golden Boy’ Could Fetch $80 Million

Sotheby's is offering a rare Botticelli portrait with an extensive museum exhibition history and an $80 million estimate.

Sandro Botticelli, Young Man Holding a Roundel. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Rare, megawatt treasures rarely come up for auction in times of turmoil—and rare, megawatt Old Master treasures rarely come up for auction at all. But Sotheby’s is bucking both of these trends by offering a portrait by Sandro Botticelli this January. It is expected to fetch around $80 million.

Young Man Holding a Roundel, a rare 15th-century work by the Renaissance artist, is being billed (in characteristic auction-house hyperbole) as “one of the most significant portraits of any period.” High praise or not, the painting is set to shatter the previous auction record for Botticelli, recalibrating the market for him—and perhaps other Old Masters as well.

The existing record for a work by the Italian artist is $10.4 million, paid for the so-called “Rockefeller Madonna,” Madonna and Child with Young Saint John the Baptist, at Christie’s in January 2013. Sotheby’s did not disclose the identity of the consignor but according to reports, it is real-estate billionaire Sheldon Solow.

“Botticelli is a name that everyone knows,” Sotheby’s head of Old Master paintings, Christopher Apostle, told Artnet News. “He’s literally in every Art History 101 book. You combine this type of sophistication with just the pure beauty and it makes you understand how intelligent an artist Botticelli was.”

The work’s arrival at the auction block no doubt comes as a disappointment to the many museums that have exhibited it over the years, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it went on view at the start of this year; London’s National Gallery (which displayed it from 1969 to 1978); and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC (1990 through 2013).

Apostle talked up the work’s pristine condition, its surface, and its appealing subject matter, including the sitter’s flowing locks. “Talk about a golden boy,” he quipped.

Although the identity of the sitter is unknown, some have suggested it might be Giovanni di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, whose brother Lorenzo was an important patron of Botticelli. The composition plays with three-dimensionality by draping the sitter’s hands over the ledge so that they “actually come into your space,” Apostle noted. The artist “broke a lot of rules and he invented a lot of things that we don’t give him credit for.”

From an early age, Botticelli was sought out by wealthy patrons (including the Medicis). But while he created some of the most important portraits in the history of Western art, only about a dozen examples have survived today and nearly all are in major museum collections. A testament to their rarity, only 11 paintings by the artist have ever fetched more than $1 million at auction (and three of these were attributed to his workshop, followers, or circle).

One might have suspected that the rise of cross-collecting and the increasing hybridization of sale categories—trends that have been accelerated by the global health crisis—would have persuaded  the house to put the work in a cross-category or even Modern and contemporary sale. (Hey, it wouldn’t be the first time.) But Sotheby’s is sticking with tradition and will offer the work in its annual January Old Master evening auction.

When pricing the portrait, Apostle pointed out that there aren’t logical comparables in the Old Master sector, so the painting’s presale estimate was determined by looking at other rare masterpieces (Picasso, Rembrandt, Francis Bacon), as well as activity in the private sector.

The painting was first recorded in the 1930s in the collection of Lord Newborough at Caernarvon in Wales, and is believed to have been first acquired by his ancestor, Sir Thomas Wynn, first Lord Newborough (1736–1807) while living in Tuscany. In the mid-1930s, the portrait passed via a London dealer to a private collector, whose heirs sold it at auction in 1982 to the present owner (Solow) for £810,000.

In his more than 30 years as an Old Master specialist, Apostle said, “it’s rare that I react physically to a painting that comes through our door. It has only happened a few times before. This is one of those special moments.”

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