Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel by Sandro Botticelli painted in the 15th century will go under the hammer at Sotheby’s in January. Young Man Holding a Roundel is expected to fetch more than 80 million dollars the highest estimate ever placed on a work by an Old Master in Sotheby’s history, the auction house says.
Young Man is believed to have been painted during the height of Botticelli’s career
Botticelli’s works live in the same “rarefied atmosphere” as significant works by artists spanning the centuries, from Rembrandt Van Rijn to Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon, and Jean-Michel Basquait —artists whose work has commanded such elevated prices says Christopher Apostle, Sotheby’s head of Old Masters in New York.
“We’re looking at a world where people react to masterpieces, react to the best of the best,” Apostle says. “It’s not a balkanized market where people are only collecting Old Masters.” It’s. Also, he says, “the simple rarity of this.”
The painting may have been painted in the late 1470s or early 1480s, up to 1485. It is a beautiful rendering of a man with long hair, likely in his 20s, and unlike portraits of a few decades earlier, it’s not an “iconic, totemic image—this is meant to be a real man,” Apostle says.
The background, meanwhile, features abstract, architectural elements, he says. It’s unclear if the subject is standing in a doorway, but possibly, and although the background appears to be a crystal blue Tuscan sky it’s unclear if it is, Apostle says.
“Then [Botticelli] puts the hand of the sitter over the ledge, so there’s just the smallest shadow in a shadowless picture,” he says. It’s “an extremely sophisticated picture, with a restrained, pared-back amount of information.”
While the painting has been in a private collection, it’s been widely seen by the public since the current owner bought it at auction in 1982 for £810,000 (about US$1.42 million) through extended loans to the National Gallery in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. It’s also been in several major museum exhibitions.
Young Man is believed to have been painted during the height of Botticelli’s career, around the time he painted Portrait of a young man with the medal of Cosimo de’ Medici, which hangs at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and Portrait of Giuliano de’ Medici, which is at the National Gallery of Art.
He also painted his masterworks, Primavera, in the late 1470s or early 1480s, and The Birth of Venus, in the mid-1480s. Both of these are the Uffizi Gallery.
“This is the moment when he is Botticelli with a capital B,” Apostle says.
While the US$1.42 million the owner paid in 1982 may be quite a bit less than the approximately US$80 million Sotheby’s expects Young Man will achieve, Apostle, notes it was a record price at the time. Besides, he says, “I can’t recall a painting of this quality, condition, visual impact, sheer unadulterated beauty by Botticelli that has been on the market since.”
Sotheby’s offered Rembrandt’s Self-portrait, wearing a ruff and black hat, 1632, at its cross-category London “Rembrandt to Richter” sale at the end of July, which featured works through decades of art history. But both the current owner, and Apostle, were happy to place Botticelli’s Young Man in Sotheby’s Masters Week sale series in January in New York.
“The January sale is our best sale every year in New York—and it’s an event,” Apostle says.
One of the undisputed masters of the Italian Renaissance – and indeed of the entire Western art tradition – Botticelli’s iconic works like Primavera, The Birth of Venus and the Cestello Annunciation evoke classical allegories and biblical themes with preternatural grace of line and subtlety of light.
Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi was born around 1445 in the city of Florence. The son of a beater-out of gold leaf, Botticelli was, according to the preeminent Renaissance biographer Giorgio Vasari, originally trained as a goldsmith before being apprenticed to Fra Filippo Lippi, a renowned painter who enjoyed the patronage of the Medici dynasty. By the early 1470s, Botticelli had his workshop in Florence; his first commissions included an adoration scene for the city’s Santa Maria Novella basilica and various Madonna portraits for private patrons.
In 1481, Pope Sixtus IV summoned Botticelli to the Vatican to create a series of frescoes for the newly-restored Sistine Chapel; Vasari reports that the gigantic sum he received for this project was “squandered in a moment during his residence in Rome.” Not long after his return to Florence, Botticelli began work on his two most instantly recognizable compositions: Primavera and The Birth of Venus, which, as classical mythological subjects painted on an unprecedentedly monumental scale, heralded the revival of Neoplatonic thought in the Quattrocento. (As compositions of transcendent beauty, these works continue to enchant viewers today.) Botticelli also continued to produce more traditional religious work, contributing altarpieces to the Bardi and San Barnaba chapels and the famous annunciation scene for the monastery of Cestello. Among Botticelli’s last major undertakings were suites of illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy, which were never completed but which comprise a fascinating record of the artist’s masterful draftsmanship and inventive imagination. Botticelli died on 17 May 17, 1510, and was buried outside the Ognissanti church where he had been baptized.
Botticelli’s work can be seen in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Louvre Museum in Paris and the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, among many other prominent public institutions.