NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).-
A small painting by Sandro Botticelli fetched $92.2 million at auction at Sothebys on Thursday, in the art markets first big test of the new year.
The result, an auction record for the Renaissance painter, was also the highest price paid for an old master work since Leonardo da Vincis Salvator Mundi sold for $450 million in 2017. It also represented a windfall for the foundation of billionaire Sheldon Solow, who had bought it for about $1.3 million in 1982. The proceeds from the sale may be used to establish a private museum in Manhattan.
Its a marvelous painting, Marc Porter, chairman of Christies in the Americas, said this week. Its very attractive and seductive and undeniably rare. And the question for the market is whether this pursuit of extremely rare, appealing, commercial works of art will continue to attract a large number of bidders even in the depth of the COVID-19 emergency.
For now, at least, the answer is affirmative. The bidding at the auction, which was livestreamed from New York, lasted just 4 1/2 minutes and drew only two competitors. The winning bid was placed by Lilija Sitnika, a London-based staffer who works with Russian clients. The underbidder was from Asia, Sothebys said, declining to elaborate further. The work was estimated at more than $80 million. (The final price included the hammer fees.)
Sothebys spent four months on its marketing campaign, putting the painting on view in Los Angeles, London and Dubai and publishing an almost 100-page catalog, with scholarly essays and technical analysis. International art buyers have taken note. Robert Simon, an old master dealer in New York, said that a wealthy Hong Kong collector contacted him shortly after the Botticelli sale was announced in September. I never heard of him, Simon said. He wanted to know what I thought of the painting.
There are some people of tremendous wealth, Simon added, and they are looking at paintings in terms of diversifying their wealth or just because they think its a great thing to own.
The Botticelli, Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel, dates to around 1480. Although the subjects identity isnt known, hes believed to be a member of the powerful Medici family. His long fingers are gripping a round, gold-ground painting of a saint, attributed to the 14th-century Sienese painter Bartolomeo Bulgarini, which is inserted into the Botticelli canvas, according to Sothebys.
The insert and the subjects youth are unusual for Botticelli, said Keith Christiansen, chair of the European paintings department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the work had been on loan twice, most recently from 2013 to 2020.
There are all sorts of speculations about his identity, but theres no way to establish who he is, Christiansen said in an interview. He is certainly a member of a well-to-do family because those were the only people who had their portraits painted.
The painting spent decades in museums. Before the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was at the National Gallery of Art in Washington for 23 years, according to Sothebys provenance. While it was sold anonymously, during much of this time, it was also listed among the assets of the Solow Art and Architecture Foundation in tax documents.
But over the years, scholars have questioned the works attribution to Botticelli. Its still unclear when the tondo of the saint was inserted, and the issue remains perhaps the most debated question about the painting, according to Sothebys catalog. Such doubts are common with old master paintings. What makes Botticelli more complicated is that the artist was completely forgotten for centuries after his death, said Mark Evans, senior curator of painting at Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The artist was rediscovered in the 19th century by pre-Raphaelite painters and has since become one of the most recognizable names in art history.
Only three movable Botticelli works two paintings and a drawing have documentation leading directly to the artist, said Evans, a co-curator of an exhibition, Botticelli Reimagined, for the museum in 2016. Almost 90% of Botticellis oeuvre consists of attribution. What we know for sure about 15th-century paintings is often very little. In the case of Botticelli, almost nothing was remembered about him 200 years ago.
But the vagaries of scholarship often dont stand in the way of astronomical prices, as was the case with the Salvator Mundi, which remains the most expensive work of art ever sold.
Botticellis Young Man may have an even broader appeal, said art consultant Beverly Schreiber Jacoby, president of BSJ Fine Art in New York.
Its not religious, she said. Its a handsome youth of high birth and manners. You dont have to be a collector of old master painting to want to buy it. It appeals to the widest possible audience.
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