arts

One of the last privately-owned Botticelli masterpieces could fetch over $40M

Updated 6th October 2021
Credit: Courtesy Sotheby's
One of the last privately-owned Botticelli masterpieces could fetch over $40M
Written by Scott Reyburn
This article was originally published by The Art Newspaper, an editorial partner of CNN Style.
Rare "autograph"-quality paintings by the Early Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli have become the art trade's equivalent of London buses. You wait and wait and wait, then four of them arrive one after the other.
First, in July 2019, there were was the speculative "Portrait of a Young Man," catalogued as "in the style of Botticelli," which sold at 1,000 times its estimate, at 7.5 million Swiss francs (with fees, around $8 million) at an auction in Zurich. In October, it was followed by Botticelli's fully-accepted portrait of the humanist Michele Marullo Tarcaniota, offered at the Frieze Masters art fair for $30 million. Then, this January, Sotheby's sold Botticelli's "Young Man Holding a Roundel" for $92.2 million.
And now Sotheby's has announced that it will be selling "The Man of Sorrows," a half-length panel painting of the resurrected Christ, thought to date from around 1500, which the auction house ambitiously claims is "the defining masterpiece of Botticelli's late career."
Scheduled to be auctioned in New York in January 2022, the Botticelli will be unveiled in Hong Kong before a global tour with viewings in Los Angeles, London and Dubai. The painting is certain to sell, courtesy of a pre-auction financial guarantee, and is estimated to raise more than $40 million.
"The Man of Sorrows," like "Young Man Holding a Roundel," is an attributional upgrade. The painting, owned by an American collector, last appeared at auction 1963, when it sold for the relatively modest price of £10,000 ($13,600 today). It was listed among the "workshop and school pictures" in Ronald Lightbown's seminal 1978 catalog of Botticelli's works, meaning it was thought to have been created by the painter's students or followers.
A closer view of Sandro Botticelli's "The Man of Sorrows."
A closer view of Sandro Botticelli's "The Man of Sorrows." Credit: Courtesy Sotheby's
But now, following its inclusion in the 2009-2010 exhibition "Botticelli: Likeness, Myth, Devotion" at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, Germany, and a subsequent in-person viewing, "The Man of Sorrows" has been hailed by Laurence Kanter, the chief curator of European art at Yale University Art Gallery, as an autograph-quality masterpiece of the artist's late period, according to a Sotheby's catalog.
The upgraded attribution for "The Man of Sorrows" has also been endorsed by Keith Christiansen, the chairman of the department of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, according to Sotheby's. However, Scott Nethersole, a specialist Botticelli scholar who is Reader in Italian Renaissance Art at the Courtauld Institute in London, remains less convinced of the painting's fully autograph status.

'Crossover picture'

Botticelli's late religious paintings from the 1490s onwards are imbued with an otherworldliness that reflects the fervid "bonfire of vanities" preaching of the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, who briefly became the de facto ruler of Florence, before being publicly executed in 1498. Vasari, in his "Lives of the Artists," from 1550, wrote that Botticelli became an adherent of Savonarola's sect, which led him to "abandon painting." Art historians now know that not to be the case. "The Man of Sorrows," impassively displaying his wounds as a halo of weeping angels holding Instruments of the Passion flutters around his head, has many stylistic similarities with Botticelli's "Mystic Nativity" in the UK's National Gallery, signed and dated 1500.
"This is a crossover picture. It could appeal to a contemporary collector," said Christopher Apostle, Sotheby's head of Old Master paintings in New York, in a phone interview. "I see a strong, stark, in-your-face image, which seems to be where we get people coming into the market, especially a big name like Botticelli, that they all know and all love."
The allure of the Botticelli brand isn't in question. But how can we be sure this picture with a $40 million-plus price tag is a fully "autograph" work by a Florentine Renaissance artist who ran a busy workshop that made large quantities of religious paintings?
Related: Why is art so expensive?
According to Sotheby's, Lightbown's 1978 catalogue of Botticelli's works, written long before tens of millions of dollars could hang on a single attribution, took a "restrictive" view of the artist's output and didn't consider works that were collaborations between the mater and his assistants.
Indeed, "Botticelli: Artist and Designer," currently running at the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris, explores how the artist's workshop was a "laboratory of ideas," according to the museum's website, making paintings that were pretty much all, to varying degrees, collaborative -- even in the case of masterworks such as "La Primavera."
Botticelli's celebrated portrait, "La Bella Simonetta," from Frankfurt's Städel Museum, is one of the star exhibits of this Paris show. Catalogued by Lightbown as a piece by the painter's workshop, this is nowadays proudly displayed by the German museum as an autograph-quality highlight of its collection.
"It ticks all the boxes of an iconic work," Ana Debenedetti, the curator of "Botticelli: Artist and Designer," said of "La Bella Simonetta" last month. As Debenedetti put it, detailed examination of that Frankfurt portrait definitively shows "Botticelli is there." But her exhibition also demonstrates that there are many other paintings designed by Botticelli in which the master's hand is further away. "The application of the pictorial layer is another matter," she added.
Read more stories from The Art Newspaper here.