A long-overlooked painting, now labeled a “seminal masterpiece” by Italian Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli, will earn the art market’s first auction price in 2022.
Botticelli’s tempera-on-panel “The Man of Sorrows,” a half-length depiction of the resurrected Christ raising his hand in blessing, is the main lot of a Thursday Sotheby’s sale of old master paintings and sculpture. Last seen at auction in 1963, the painting is sure to secure a price of at least $40 million, thanks to a prearranged “irrevocable offer” from a third-party guarantor.
This is Sotheby’s second major Botticelli to offer in a year. Last January, “Portrait of a Young Man with a Rondel,” from the estate of New York-based real estate mogul and art collector Sheldon Solow, sold for $92.2 million, a record price for a Botticelli at auction — as well as an old master. photo at Sotheby’s.
Old masters are not as fashionable as wealthy collectors, as they have been overshadowed by luxury items such as sneakers and handbags as revenue-generating sales categories at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s. But impressive prices can still be won at auction for centuries-old paintings marketed as signed quality works by the most famous names in art history. In 2017, an extensively restored panel painting of the ‘Salvator Mundi’, Christ as ‘Savior of the World’, cataloged by Christie’s as a long-lost masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci, sold for $450.3 million, a record for any work of art offered at auction.
Sotheby’s describes “The Man of Sorrows” as a late work by Botticelli from about 1500, a period when, according to Giorgio Vasari’s “Lives of the Artists” of 1550, the Florentine painter was influenced by the fire-and-sulfur preaching of the Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola, and became a follower of the preacher sect. Works from Botticelli’s later period are seen by modern scholars as imbued with intense religious fervor. Sotheby’s solemn composition is notable for its halo of mourning angels circling the thorn-crowned head of the risen Christ.
“Had it been more secular, it would have broadened the market tremendously,” said Guy Jennings, senior director at the Fine Art Group, a London-based art consultancy and art financing firm. “It’s a tough painting, but it’s expressive and rare.”
When “The Man of Sorrows” was last auctioned off as Botticelli nearly 60 years ago, it sold for a relatively modest $26,000. Ronald Lightbown, the leading Botticelli scholar of the time, later referred to the painting in his 1978 Complete Catalog of the Artist’s Works as one of the “workshop and school pictures.” It was grouped under “late workshop products from Botticelli’s circle” in Frank Zöllner’s 2005 monograph on the artist.
But like the “Salvator Mundi”, which was included in the exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan” at the National Gallery in London 2011-2012, “The Man of Sorrows” has benefited from the attribution given to it. was given at a large museum show.
In 2009, the long-ignored painting from an unnamed family collection was included as a work with signature status in the “Botticelli: Likeness, Myth, Devotion” exhibition at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, Germany.
Bastien Eclercy, the Städel’s curator of Italian, French and Spanish paintings before 1800, wrote in the exhibition catalog that the “rediscovered painting from a private collection” represented not only “an important new example of Botticelli’s late period” but also a “striking facet for our understanding of the depiction of Christ in the Renaissance.”
The attribution was endorsed by Laurence Kanter, the chief curator of European art at Yale University Art Gallery, and Keith Christiansen, former chair of the European Paintings Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, according to Sotheby’s.
“It’s an exceptional opportunity to access a historically significant work of art,” said Todd Levin, a New York-based art consultant who specializes in both contemporary and ancient masterpieces. “The possibility of this being Botticelli’s makes it extremely desirable. Few old master trophies are in private hands.”
Levin also points out that Sotheby’s sale of this latest Botticelli underlines how the major auction houses have fared well in the challenging trading conditions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic. Driven by its technologically innovative livestreamed and online-only auctions, Sotheby’s reported revenue of $7.3 billion in 2021, the highest total in the company’s 277-year history.
Sotheby’s was acquired in 2019 by French-Israeli telecom mogul Patrick Drahi in a leveraged buyout worth $3.7 billion. Last month, Bloomberg reported that Drahi is considering turning privately-owned Sotheby’s back into a publicly traded company.
Asked for comment on the Bloomberg report, the auction house said in a statement, “Sotheby’s does not comment on rumors or speculation.”