A long-overlooked painting, now billed as a “seminal masterpiece” by the Italian renaissance master Sandro Botticelli, is set to make the art market’s first headline-grabbing auction price of 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 star lot of a Sotheby’s sale of old master paintings and sculpture on Thursday. Last seen at auction back in 1963, the painting is certain to secure a price of at least $40 million, courtesy of a prearranged “irrevocable bid” from a third-party guarantor.
This is the second big-ticket Botticelli that Sotheby’s has offered in the space of a year. Last January, “Portrait of a young man holding a roundel,” from the estate of the New York-based real estate magnate and art collector Sheldon Solow, sold for $92.2 million, a record price for a Botticelli at auction — as well as an old master picture at Sotheby’s.
Old masters are not as fashionable as they were with wealthy collectors, having been eclipsed by luxury items such as sneakers and handbags as a revenue-generating sales category at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s. But impressive prices can still be achieved at auction for centuries-old paintings marketed as autograph-quality works by art history’s most famous names. 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 artwork 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 1550 “Lives of the Artists,” the Florentine painter fell under the influence of the fire-and-brimstone preaching of the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, becoming an adherent of the preacher’s sect. Works from Botticelli’s later period have been viewed by modern scholars as being imbued with an intense religious fervor. Sotheby’s solemn composition is notable for its halo of grieving angels circling the risen Christ’s thorn-crowned head.
“If it had been more secular, it would have broadened the market hugely,” said Guy Jennings, senior director at the Fine Art Group, a London-based art advisory and art finance company. “It’s a tough painting, but it is expressive and it’s rare.”
When “The Man of Sorrows” last came up for auction as a Botticelli almost 60 years ago it sold for a relatively modest $26,000. Ronald Lightbown, the leading Botticelli scholar of the time, later listed the painting among “workshop and school pictures” in his 1978 complete catalog of the artist’s works. It was grouped among “late workshop products from the circle of Botticelli” in Frank Zöllner’s 2005 monograph on the artist.
But like the “Salvator Mundi,” which was included in the 2011-2012 “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan” exhibition at the National Gallery in London, “The Man of Sorrows” has benefited from the attribution given it at a major museum show.
In 2009, the long-ignored painting from an unnamed family collection was included as an autograph-status work in the exhibition, “Botticelli: Likeness, Myth, Devotion,” 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” not only represented “an important new example of Botticelli’s late period,” but also added a “striking facet to 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 chairman of the department of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, according to Sotheby’s.
“It’s an exceptional opportunity to access a historically important work of art,” said Todd Levin, a New York-based art adviser who specializes in both contemporary and old master works. “The possibility that this may be by Botticelli makes it exceptionally desirable. There are precious few old master trophies left in private hands.”
Levin also points out that Sotheby’s sale of this latest Botticelli underlines how the major auction houses have thrived in the challenging trading conditions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic. Driven by its technologically innovative livestreamed and online-only auctions, Sotheby’s reported sales of $7.3 billion in 2021, the highest total in the company’s 277-year history.
Sotheby’s had been acquired in 2019 by the French-Israeli telecoms magnate Patrick Drahi in a leveraged buyout worth $3.7 billion. Last month, Bloomberg reported that Drahi is considering turning privately held Sotheby’s into a publicly traded company once again.
Asked to comment on the Bloomberg report, the auction house said in a statement: “Sotheby’s doesn’t comment on rumors or speculation.”