Sotheby's Masters Week spans millennia of art history with $40 million Botticelli masterpiece
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Sotheby's Masters Week spans millennia of art history with $40 million Botticelli masterpiece
Fra Bartolommeo, Head of a Young Woman Looking Down, est. $400/600,000. Courtesy Sotheby's.

NEW YORK, NY.- This January, Sotheby’s will offer a rich selection of Old Master paintings, drawings and sculpture by some of the most celebrated names in European art history during its marquee Masters Week sale series, starting on 26 January. Gathered from some of the greatest private collections in the world, the sales will be headlined by Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli’s arresting Man of Sorrows, a seminal masterpiece of the Florentine artist’s late career, estimated in excess of $40 million. A touching portrayal of Christ, recent technical analysis in preparation for the sale has revealed an earlier composition of a Madonna and Child hidden beneath the painting, unseen to the naked eye till now.

Alongside masterpieces and newly discovered works from the 14th to 19th centuries, this season’s sale series will also include, for the first time ever, an Old Kingdom Egyptian limestone sculpture dated to the late 5th Dynasty, circa 2440-2355 B.C. – presenting a thought-provoking dialogue between figurative and representational art across millennia.

The Masters Week pre-sale exhibition will be open to the public beginning 22 January and run through 27 January at Sotheby’s New York headquarters.

Master Paintings & Sculpture Part I
Global Livestream Auction: 27 January, 10am ET

The centerpiece of the Master Paintings & Sculpture marquee auction is Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli’s unparalleled The Man of Sorrows, one of the last great masterpieces by the artist remaining in private hands, which was executed circa 1500. A remarkably realistic portrayal of Christ symbolizing his suffering and death, the painting showcases Christ’s divinity with a stunning psychological depth and humanity that is the hallmark of Botticelli’s portraiture, and further puts a spotlight on the artist’s own intense spirituality, which greatly influenced his later works.

Recent technical analysis by Sotheby’s in-house research team has revealed an earlier composition hidden beneath the painting, unseen until now. When turning the infrared image one hundred eighty degrees, elements of an unrelated underdrawing can be seen, outlines of which, have been interpreted by Sotheby’s specialists as the early stages of the figures of the Christ Child and the Madonna, further suggesting that the panel was originally prepared for an entirely different image. Mother and Child appear close to the upper edge of the composition and are pressed cheek to cheek in an endearing composition, derived from the venerable image of the Virgin Eleousa (of “tenderness”), a type that was common in the Greek tradition and adapted by many later Italian painters of the Renaissance. The head of the Christ Child, with his upward gaze, is supported by the left hand of the Madonna, and the thick folds of her mantle are visible at her shoulder near the right of the composition. This particular compositional pose is found in a number of paintings by Botticelli and his workshop, indicating that the earlier idea for a painting of the Madonna, a mainstay of Botticelli’s production, was replaced with what would be a virtually unique and inspired invention by the master. It has been suggested that the artist’s abandonment of the original image was due in part of the knot in the wooden panel, as it would have fallen right between the faces of the Madonna and Christ Child. Infrared imaging also reveals a number of changes he made as he worked through the composition, including adjustment in the placement of a few of the thorns on his temple, an alteration to the position of Christ’s eyebrows, a slight shift in the outline of his chin, and a lowering of Christ’s wound at his side. The distinct changes observable in the rendering of Christ’s hands further underscore Botticelli’s authorship, particularly in the refined contours of the fingers as well as their placement in space.

The Man of Sorrows comes to auction following Sotheby’s record-breaking sale of Botticelli’s Young Man Holding a Roundel in January 2021, which realized $92.2 million -- making it one of the most valuable portraits of any era ever sold, one of the most valuable Old Master Paintings ever sold at auction, and the most valuable work ever sold in a Sotheby’s Old Masters auction. Despite the landmark sale last year, works by Botticelli – from any period – remain exceedingly rare at auction. His late works, in particular, very seldom appear on the market, with only three other works from this period (post 1492) known to be in private hands. A full press release is available here.

For the first time in the context of an Old Master sale, Sotheby’s presents a unique addition to the sale by offering an Egyptian Limestone Figure of a Man from circa 2440-2355 B.C. to create a thought-provoking dialogue between figurative art across millennia (est. $ 3/5 million). The figure itself represents an important early depiction of man in motion, an iconography that remains a central influence to later periods of Western art.

The figure was scientifically excavated from the Great Western Cemetery at Giza in a tomb which belonged to a man named Weri and his wife Meti. The tomb, and subsequently the figure, date to Egypt’s Fifth Dynasty, probably during the reign of Niuserra circa 2432-2421 B.C. Beginning in 1902, a team led by the great American archeologist, George A. Reisner, working on the behalf of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Harvard University, discovered the present statue in 1913 at the foot of the Pyramids.

In 1921, the sculpture was awarded to the Museum of Fine Arts by the Egyptian Government Antiquities Service via division of funds, which allowed foreign expeditions to retain and export some of the material they discovered in the course of their work. In 1978, it sold at auction for $280,000, then the highest price ever achieved at auction for an ancient sculpture. From 1996 - 2021, the current owner placed the work on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it was exhibited in the Old Kingdom gallery.

The sale also includes a number of exceptional Italian paintings, including an incredibly rare early gold-ground of the Madonna and Child by Venetian master Giovanni Bellini, from the collection of the descendants of Anton F. Philips (1874-1951), the great entrepreneur and co-founder of Royal Philips Electronics, where it has remained since it was acquired in 1913 (est. $3/5 million); a newly rediscovered painting on panel, recently identified as Correggio’s long-lost picture of the reclining Magdalen, one of his most celebrated masterpieces, hitherto only known in the form of copies (below, est. $4.5/5.5 million); and a rare portrait by Andrea del Sarto, depicting an elegantly dressed man presumed to be a member of the illustrious Medici family (est. $2/3 million). Two exquisite canvases by Artemisia Gentileschi, a portrait of an elegant and beautiful young woman – believed to be Caterina Savelli, Principessa di Albano (est. $2/3 million) – and a depiction of Susanna and the Elders (est. $1.8/2.5 million), lead a group of prime works by trailblazing female artists. Other strong examples include a monumental still life by Anne Vallayer-Coster (est. $1.5/2.5 million), a small and delicate still-life by Rachel Ruysch (est. $80/120,000) and a monumental mythological scene depicting the death of Cenchirias by 19th-century history painter Sophie Rude (est. $500/700,000). The sale is also distinguished by Nicolas de Largillière’s 18th century masterwork Portrait of a lady as Pomona, possibly the Marquise de Parabère, recently restituted by Dresden State Art Collections to the heirs of the renowned Jewish collector Jules Strauss (est. $1/1.5 million). A separate press release is available

Master to Master: The Nelson Shanks Collection
27 January, 2pm ET

Sotheby’s is honored to present the collection of Nelson Shanks, the famed American realist painter known for his portraits of international leaders, royals and celebrities. In addition to his prolific artistic practice, in which he painted nearly every day of his entire career, Mr. Shanks was an avid collector of painting, sculpture, drawings, and furniture, with a special affinity for the Italian baroque period. Highlights from the sale include a monumental masterpiece by Neapolitan artist Mattia Preti, with provenance dating back to its commission, a rare mature work by Guido Cagnacci, and a magnificent Venus by Dosso Dossi, which was thought to be lost until Shanks recognized it and acquired it. Shanks delighted in researching new acquisitions, and indeed correctly identified several works sold anonymously at auction: in addition to the Dosso, he recognized the quality of the Scarsellino, Volterrano, and Francesco del Cairo in this sale, all of which were discoveries at the time of acquisition.

In addition to his Old Master collection, the sale will offer a group of never-before exhibited head studies for five commissioned portraits painted by Shanks of Princess Diana, Luciano Pavarotti, Renée Fleming, and Presidents Reagan and Clinton.

The second iteration of the new-format Master Works on Paper from Five Centuries sale – first held, with great success, in London last July – again presents a selection of exceptional drawings, watercolours and gouaches that together chart in fascinating ways the development of the art of drawing in Europe over centuries – traveling through the early Italian Renaissance and the Dutch Golden Age to 18th-century France, and even reaching the birth of Modernism in the late 19th century.

The star of the sale, and one of the earliest drawings offered, is an immensely refined and moving, rediscovered Head of a Young Woman Looking Down, drawn by the young Fra Bartolommeo in the late 1490s (est. $400/600,000). This superbly sophisticated and very well-preserved early drawing by the great Florentine master was certainly drawn from life, and has all the intense observation of a portrait, but was surely made to serve as the basis for the figure of the Madonna in a painting. Here, the features of an individual have been transformed into a more universal image of the symbol of purity, holiness and piety, and the artist’s own intense spirituality is abundantly clear. Carefully and delicately executed, mostly in black chalk and stumping, Fra Bartolommeo’s moving study takes full advantage of the visual possibilities offered by the smooth beige-brown preparation of the paper, a technique that the master often used. The slightly tilted head of the young woman – looking down to the left – is characterized by subtle and delicate volumes, enhanced by the use of the sfumato combined with the rendering of warm sensual skin, achieved by rubbing powdered white chalk into the prepared darker surface. This gives an almost porcelain-like tone to the soft volumes of the face, which acquires an extraordinary luminosity. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the drawing was recorded in two outstanding English collections (those of John Barnard (died 1784) and William Mayor (died 1874)), and it was last seen on the market in 1927, when it was acquired by the grandfather of the present owners at a sale in Amsterdam, for the relatively significant sum of 892.50 guilders.

Equally rare is Guercino’s astonishingly refined, grand self-portrait, brilliantly drawn in red and black chalks (est. $400/600,000). A self-portrait of such magnitude and importance, combining exquisite draftsmanship with deep introspection, is not only unique in the drawn œuvre of Guercino, but is also an extremely rare surviving testimony of any artist of his time. Generous in size, this is a magnificent addition to the artist’s known drawings, and was surely made as a finished work in its own right, most probably intended to be given as a gift to an important patron or institution. Amusingly, Guercino has here drawn himself from the one viewpoint from which his famous squint could not be seen. The artist’s technical virtuosity and ability to achieve extraordinary effects of softness and luminosity are strikingly evident in this self-portrait, of which no other is known to exist.

The sale also boasts a group of six exceptional 18th-century Venetian drawings, from the famous collection formed in the late 19th and early 20th century by Marie-Pierre-Louis Hélie de Talleyrand-Périgord, Duc de Talleyrand (1859-1937). These include three superbly animated studies by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, and a spectacular, incredibly rapidly drawn, late study by Francesco Guardi, depicting the view from in front of the Basilica of San Marco, looking across towards San Giorgio Maggiore (est. $120/180,000). While the Venetian view on the recto of this sheet is outstanding in its own right, perhaps more intriguing is a quick sketch of the Madonna and Child on the verso, clearly drawn by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo some fifty years earlier, in the early 1730s. This seems to be the only known example of a sheet that was used, at different times, by these two giants of Venetian painting, and its existence opens a Pandora’s box of possibilities regarding the relationship between the two artists.

Rounding out the week’s series of live auctions is The European Art Sale Part I sale, featuring a large array of Belle Époque masterpieces, including magnificent Paris street scenes by Edmond-Georges Grandjean, a majestic portrait by Mihály Munkácsy, and a number of exquisite Neoclassical figures, by Daniel Ridgway Knight, John William Godward, and Eugen von Blaas. A spectacular early racing scene by John Frederick Herring Sr. of The 1828 Doncaster Gold Cup, leads an important group of sporting pictures (est. $500/700,000), among additional highlights of naval encounters by Montague Dawson, a moonlit nocturnal landscape by John Atkinson Grimshaw, and several expansive city views in gouache. The sale is led by William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s life-sized canvas, Jeune bergère debout, belonging to a series of works chronicling French country life, painted during summers in the artist’s native La Rochelle where he vacationed (above, est. $800,000/1.2 million).

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