Auction  January 29, 2021  Rozalia Jovanovic

Unusual Botticelli Portrait Sets Record in $92.2 Million Sale

Courtesy of Sotheby’s

Sandro Botticelli, Young Man Holding a Roundel, c 1480.

Thursday morning, Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel by Sandro Botticelli broke the record for sales of Old Masters at Sotheby’s when it sold for $92.2 million, in the first marquee sale of the year. The work becomes the second-highest record for an Old Master at auction after Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi and was roughly nine times the last record set by a work of Botticelli: The Rockefeller Madonna: Madonna and Child with Young Saint John the Baptist, which sold at Christie’s in 2013 for $10.4 million, according to Artprice.

Courtesy of Sotheby’s

Sandro Botticelli, Young Man Holding a Roundel, c 1480.

Though Botticelli is most well-known for his large tableaux paintings, Primavera and Birth of Venus, which feature various figures in natural settings, this small portrait depicts a nobleman who, though unidentified, is thought to be a member of the storied Medici family. Framed by a window in a simple blue background that appears almost abstract, the figure looks at the viewer with a directness that was unconventional for the time.

One of the most striking elements of the image is the roundel held in the hand of the young man. The image—of a bearded saint with one hand raised—is in fact a separate painting dated to the 14th century and attributed to the painter Bartolomeo Bulgarini that had been inset into the Botticelli canvas, a technique that was not common at the time.

It is “very unusual,” said Old Master dealer Robert Simon about the inserted painting. “And we really don’t know whether this was done by Botticelli or by a later owner of the painting.” He added, “There are altarpieces in which an older, especially venerated work is set into a later painting—but I cannot think of an equivalent secular work.”

Courtesy of Sotheby’s

Sandro Botticelli, detial of Young Man Holding a Roundel, c 1480.

The first time the painting was securely recorded, according to Sotheby’s, was in the 1930s in the collection of Lord Newborough at Caernarvon in Wales. It then was passed to his ancestor Sir Thomas Wynn, 1st Lord Newborough (1736-1807) while he was living in Tuscany. It moved into a private collection around 1935 with the help of a London dealer. The collectors’ heirs sold it to the current owner auction in 1982 for £810,000. The work was offered anonymously at Christie’s though it reportedly came from the collection of real estate developer Sheldon Solow who died in November and purchased the piece for $1.3 million.

Little by little, the billionaire Solow donated fractions of the work to his private foundation, per Katya Kazakina at Bloomberg, which at the time of the auction, reportedly owned at least 99 percent of the painting. (Saving Solow’s heirs from paying $33 million in capital gains taxes.)

Though it has been in private hands for nearly a century, it has spent the past 50 years on extended loans at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery in London, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and has made appearances in notable global exhibitions

“While the pandemic has been economically devastating to so many worldwide,” Simon commented, “the truth is that much of the potential audience for such a painting has been unscathed by it.” 

Simon did note, however, that the pandemic would “practically have ended interest from museums, should there have been any (unlikely as that might have been).” The portrait was sold to Lilija Sitnika, who’s part of the Russian desk in the auction house’s London Private Client Group, which deals with Russian clients.

Courtesy of Sotheby’s

Sandro Botticelli, Young Man Holding a Roundel, c 1480.

And while there had been “some questions” about the painting’s attribution “many years ago,” Simon said the painting was “unquestionably by Botticelli.” While the painting was widely spoken about by collectors, dealers, curators, and just about everyone in the Old Master community, he “had not come across a single dissenting voice from any respected scholar.”  

In a fun video that the auction house showed before the auction began, which seemed designed to demonstrate the cross-generational appeal of Old Master paintings, photographer Erik Madigan Heck compared Botticelli’s portrait—with its clean bright blocks of color and direct gaze of the subject—to one “classically beautiful” portrait he did of musician Adele in a bright red coat for the cover of Time magazine. 

“I think of a portrait more as a portrait of the artist than the sitter,” said Heck as the image of Adele came on the screen with her head turned at the same angle as Botticelli’s young man and her eyes staring out at us with a similarly languorous look. “The boy is an object for [Botticelli] to put his ideas onto.” He added, “It’s a mysterious parable that only he has the answer to.”

About the Author

Rozalia Jovanovic

Rozalia Jovanovic is a writer and editor born and raised in New York who has covered the art world for nearly a decade. She has been the Editor-in-Chief of artnet News and digital director of Galerie magazine. A MacDowell fellow, Rozalia studied art history and communications at the University of Pennsylvania and received an MFA in fiction from Columbia University.

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