What you see: Young Man Holding a Roundel, a portrait painted in the late 1470s or early 1480s by Sandro Botticelli. Sotheby’s estimates the Botticelli painting in excess of $80 million. It carries the highest estimate the auction house has ever given to an Old Master painting.
The expert: Elisabeth Lobkowicz, a specialist in Sotheby’s Old Master paintings department.
The materials from Sotheby’s describe the Botticelli painting as “The Ultimate Renaissance Portrait”. What makes it “The Ultimate Renaissance Portrait” and not just the ultimate Botticelli portrait? Botticelli is one of the most admired, beloved, and important artists of the Renaissance. He is the creator of many of the most iconic images of that age, and he was a leading master in the realm of portraiture. This sitter is the ultimate Renaissance man–beautiful, confident, erudite–and so this should be considered the ultimate Renaissance portrait.
The portrait is believed to have been painted in the late 1470s or early 1480s. Where was Botticelli in his career at that point? These years are generally considered the height of Botticelli’s career. It was during this period that he created many of his best works, including the Primavera and The Birth of Venus and his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.
How prolific was Botticelli? How many of his paintings survive? About 150 works by Botticelli survive, but only about a dozen or so portraits. His portraits are much rarer, but they represent an important part of his corpus and provide for a deeper understanding of his genius.
What, if anything, do we know about the sitter? What clues lurking within the painting itself suggest who it might be? Are there any other figures depicted in Botticelli’s paintings who look like this man? The sitter’s identity remains a mystery. He’s probably a member of the Medici family or someone in their close circle, because Botticelli was one of their favored artists, and many of the Medici turned to him to paint their portraits. Images from the period show that there were many fair-haired youths in the Medici entourage, but it’s hard to definitively link the sitter to any particular likeness. Attempts have been made in the past. Suggestions include Piero de’ Medici (1472–1503), son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and Giovanni di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, but there’s no evidence to confirm these identifications.
The painting contains a roundel of a saint, painted in the previous century by a different artist. What, if anything, do we know about why the Botticelli painting took this form? Did Botticelli paint other portraits with inserted roundels, or is this a one-off? The roundel is a separate work of art altogether, painted by the Sienese artist Bartolommeo Bulgarini. He was active in Siena and Tuscany a century before Botticelli, and his works would have been known in Florence by Botticelli’s time. The roundel was not always circular–it was cut to this shape from a larger vertical panel, which may have once formed part of an altarpiece. There are no other known examples of Botticelli inserting a gold-ground painting into his works, but the closest comparable work is his Portrait of a Man Holding a Medal of Cosimo il Vecchio in the Uffizi, in which Botticelli includes a round, carved, pastiglia medallion–a three-dimensional sculpture in low relief. What I’m trying to say is in this case, in the Uffizi portrait, the young man is not holding a medal of Cosimo il Vecchio. The object in his hand is actually a sculpted and gilded gesso–a pastiglia, carved in such an illusionistic manner that we read it as a real object. In the case of our Botticelli portrait, however, the roundel is a real object, set into the panel and set into the sitter’s hands.
Do we know which saint is depicted in the roundel in the Botticelli painting? If we do, what might the presence of the saint’s image tell us about the sitter, and why he might have wanted to be shown with this saint? Unfortunately, because the saint depicted in the roundel lacks any specific attributes, his identity also remains a mystery. What I can say is the roundel itself remains a point of lively debate among scholars. Some consider the roundel as original to Botticelli’s intention. Others consider it a later addition that replaced some other object–perhaps something similar to what we see in the Uffizi portrait.
Would Botticelli have painted this portrait alone, or would he have had assistants handle some parts of the work, such as the background? Botticelli would have painted this entire painting himself. It wasn’t until later in his career–the second half of 1480s onwards–that we see the regular intervention of his workshop.
How do we know this is a genuine Botticelli painting? What details or features testify to its legitimacy? No living Botticelli scholar is known to have any doubt about Botticelli’s authorship of the painting. The portrait’s technique, style, and design process is wholly characteristic of his output and his innovative mind.
How does the painting reflect Botticelli’s mastery as an artist? It is pure perfection – showing the best of his skills at the height of his creative powers. It is reflective of his confident and consummate skills.
What is the Botticelli painting like in person? What details or aspects don’t come across in the photo? It is a truly wonderful experience to see the painting up close. Such a close perspective allows the amazing detail with which he rendered the work to shine even brighter. The aspects that come across more clearly in person are the condition, the brilliant technique, and the crisp colors. You can even see the incised lines he used to plan out the architectural elements and the frame of the roundel – it’s like a little glimpse into his mind and working process.
What is your favorite detail of the Botticelli painting? I love how the setting is so simple, yet we understand the space as wholly three-dimensional. No dramatic lines or perspective needed, just a lifelike sitter. This illusion is further enhanced by the fingers of his left hand, which ever so slightly cross over the pictorial boundary into the realm of the viewer.
What condition is the Botticelli painting in? It’s in excellent condition, which is quite remarkable and rare for a painting of this age–over 500 years old.
What do we know about the provenance of the work? How far back does it go? The earliest recorded provenance is the Newborough Family in northern Wales. According to family tradition, the painting was acquired by the first Lord Newborough while he was living in Florence towards the end of the 18th century. The painting then descended in the Newborough family until the mid-1930s, when it was acquired by a dealer. By 1941, the painting had entered the collection of Sir Thomas Ralph Merton, who had an amazing collection himself–36 paintings of the highest caliber, including a Holbein, a Cranach, and other later religious works by Botticelli. Interesting fact: In addition to being a collector, Sir Thomas Merton was a famed scientist, inventor, and spectrometrist. He had a keen eye for works of a very high quality, and he was particularly attracted to colors and pigments. It’s not surprising that this portrait caught his eye and was one of the centerpieces of his collection. The Merton estate sold the painting at Christie’s London in 1982, where it was acquired by the present owner for the equivalent of about $1.3 million at the time. There are some earlier inventory numbers on the reverse of the panel that suggest even older owners than the Newborough family, but we have yet to be able to link them up to old inventories.
Does this sale mark the first time that a Botticelli painting—as opposed to a sketch or preparatory work by him—has gone to auction in modern times? Nothing even remotely similar in quality or importance has come to the market for several generations. There have been a number of late devotional works which Botticelli produced in large numbers with his workshop from the mid-1480s onwards, when his business became more of a commercial enterprise. But no major commission, be it a portrait or devotional work, has appeared on the market since the 1980s until the so-called “Last Botticelli”–Portrait of Michele Marullo–was offered at Frieze Masters in 2019 for around $30 million. The Rockefeller Madonna, Madonna and Child with Young Saint John the Baptist, offered at Christie’s New York in 2013, sold for $10.4 million.
I understand this is one of three Botticellis remaining in private hands. If one or both of the remaining two go to auction, would they perform as well or better than we expect this portrait to perform? In other words, is this the best of the three? This portrait is considered by many to be one of Botticelli’s best portraits, comparable in inventiveness and quality to his Portrait of a young man with the medal of Cosimo de’ Medici and his Portrait of Giuliano de’ Medici.
What is the world auction record for a Botticelli? The Rockefeller Madonna, sold at Christie’s in 2013 for $10.4 million, is currently the world record for Botticelli.
I understand the estimate placed on this work is the highest Sotheby’s has assigned to an Old Master painting. If it sells for at or above $80 million, what world auction records will it set or break? In addition to being one of the most significant portraits of any period to appear at auction, it could very well be the next to surpass the $100 million threshold. The last painting to achieve that level at auction was Claude Monet’s Meules at Sotheby’s New York in 2019. [It sold for $110.7 million.]
What comparables did you look to when setting the estimate? One notable Old Master comparable is the Rubens masterpiece Massacre of the Innocents, which sold at Sotheby’s London in July 2002 for around $76.5 million. We also considered iconic works by famed artists of other genres that have come to market, such as Monet’s Meules, and a version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream that sold for $119.9 million at Sotheby’s New York in May 2012, and Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II, which sold at Christie’s New York in November 2006 for $87.9 million.
Why will this Botticelli painting stick in your memory? I’ve spent a lot of time with this young man over the past few months, and certainly, he has left an indelible impression on my mind. He’s rather handsome, no? His incredibly modern feel–one imparted by his condition, his simple setting, and his lifelike presence–is unforgettable. This portrait is the definition of a masterpiece. We have all been incredibly honored to work with this one-of-a-kind object over these past few months. I’ll surely miss him when he’s off to a new home.
How to bid: The Sandro Botticelli portrait Young Man Holding a Roundel will headline Master Paintings and Sculpture Part I, a sale taking place at Sotheby’s New York on January 28, 2021.
Images are courtesy of Sotheby’s.
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