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Botticelli Painting Sells for Record $92.1 Million

Sandro Botticelli (Italian, c. 1445-1510), Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel, c. 1480, tempera on poplar panel

Sold for $92,184,000 on January 28, 2021

Courtesy of Sotheby's

Earlier this week, Sotheby’s set a new record for the sale of a work by a Renaissance artist at auction when a painting by Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel, sold to a private collector for $92.1 million. As far as works by European Old Masters go, this stunning price is second only to Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, which sold at Christie’s New York for a jaw-dropping $450.3 million in November 2017.

Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel is an enigmatic work that depicts a handsome young man holding a miniature religious portrait by a 14th century Sienise painter, Bartolomeo Bulgarini. The portrait by Bulgarini is not merely an illusion, however; it is actually inset in the panel on which Botticelli painted around the year 1480. It is believed that the young man in Botticelli's portrait, whose identity has been lost to time, was actually a young member of the infamous Medici family. In addition to being a banking and political family dynasty, the Medicis were perhaps the most well-known patrons of the arts in 15th century Florence. As such, there is a reasonable basis for such speculation.

This 540 year old portrait was described, in the run up to the recent sale, as having a "very modern feel." The sitter's youthfulness and the portrait's vibrancy appealed to a very modern sensibility that surely helped the work achieve its record price. Posed in front of an open window, the work is brightly colored and has a composition that, while geometrically simple, exemplifies the importance of perspective and draughtsmanship that define the work of Renaissance portraitists.

In recent decades, the market for works by European Old Masters has declined as collectors shifted their focus to works by Impressionist and Modern artists and, more recently, towards Post War and contemporary artists. However, it is hardly a surprise that such a stunning painting by one of perhaps a dozen or so of the best known "Old Master" artists managed to reach the same highs as other art auction darlings, including Jeff Koons and David Hockney, both of whom have had works sell for more than $90 million at auction in the last several years.

The decline in the market for Old Masters, in some respects, is the result of changing taste. Collectors are more interested in the works of artists like Andy Warhol and Pablo Picasso than older European style works, whose appreciation perhaps appeals to a more historic, rather than aesthetic, sensibility. But in general, the Old Masters market has been hampered by the small supply of high quality works which appear on the market at any one time.

Leonardo da Vinci (Italian, 1452-1519)

Salvator Mundi, oil on panel, c. 1500

Sold for $450,312,500 on November 14, 2017

Image Courtesy of Christie's

Apart from the sale of Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi and Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel, many of the highest prices paid for works by European Old Masters have been achieved through private sales rather than on the open market. Among the most notable sales to have occurred at auction, however, was the sale of Peter Paul Ruben’s Massacre of the Innocents in 2002 at Sotheby’s London for £49.5 million. At the time, with the relative strength of the Great British Pound, the sale was equivalent to $76.7 million USD. The work, which was purchased by a Canadian businessman, is now on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Canada.

The relative rarity of “trophy” works by Old Masters continues to lead to stunning prices for top tier works, but depressed prices for many others. In 2016, a pair of pendant portraits by Rembrandt van Rijn depicting Maerten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit were purchased jointly by the Louvre and the Rijksmuseum from descendants of the Rothschild banking family for $180 million. Despite this record breaking price, one of the few remaining Rembrandt religious scenes –– Abraham and the Angels, painted in 1646 –– was withdrawn at the eleventh hour from the same sale as the Botticelli where it was estimated to sell for between $20 and $30 million. The most likely reason for this withdrawal was a lack of interest among potential qualified bidders, with the consignor likely opting to pursue a private sale rather than risk the work selling below their expected price, if at all. While such occurances are not uncommon, it speaks to the degree of uncertainty that Old Masters collectors have when deciding to sell their work in a public forum.

It is worth noting that the Botticelli which sold earlier this week has broken records more than once. The work was purchased at auction by its late owner for just over $1 million in 1982, where it first set a record for the sale of a work by Sandro Botticelli at auction. In the decades since, the highest price paid for a work by Botticelli apart from this week's record-breaking sale was a comparatively low $10.4 million set for the Rockefeller Madonna and Child sold at Christie’s in 2013.

With a sale price of $92.1 million, Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel has propelled Sandro Botticelli’s auction visibility to new unbelievable highs. While the rarity of high quality works by Old Masters on the open market mean that the sale of a similar work by Botticelli is unlikely to eclipse this result in the near future, the auction market is always full of surprises.


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