Sotheby’s sold Sandro Botticelli’s circa-1480 portrait of a “Young Man Holding a Roundel” for $92.2 million to a Russian-speaking collector during a live-streamed online sale Thursday, breaking the Italian Renaissance artist’s sales record and reaffirming a global appetite for trophy art following a tough year in the art market.
The portrait was estimated to sell for around $80 million, but a pair of anonymous telephone bidders vied for the work, with an Asian bidder losing quickly to a Russian-speaking bidder. The competition lacked the typical sizzle of a blockbuster sale moment, though.
Still, the work easily surpassed the artist’s previous record of $10.4 million when in 2013 Christie’s sold his “Madonna and Child with Young Saint John the Baptist,” also known as the Rockefeller Madonna because of its ties to the banking family.
The portrait also marked the year’s first major test of the art market and may go some way toward shoring up collector confidence in blue-chip masterworks—after collectors largely retrenched to lower-priced art amid the pandemic. Christie’s didn’t auction off a single work of art for over $80 million last year; Sotheby’s sold one work, a Francis Bacon, for $85 million. Overall, Sotheby’s sales fell 12% to $5 billion last year.
It may have helped that the Botticelli was being sold by the estate of New York real-estate developer Sheldon Solow, who spent decades amassing an enviable collection of Egyptian antiquities as well as art by Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti and Vincent Van Gogh. Mr. Solow, who died last November, paid $1.2 million for the Botticelli in 1982.
Botticelli’s portrait depicts an unknown young man holding a small, round 14th-century panel painting of a saint. The auburn-haired man’s fingers appear to grip the round inset beyond the painting’s framework, a trompe l’oeil virtuosity—or an optical illusion of depth—admired by fellow Florentine painters of his day, including Leonardo da Vinci. Its bold, simple composition also likely appealed to a broader set of modern and contemporary art lovers who don’t typically buy old masters, said Evan Beard, managing director of Bank of America Private Bank.
“It doesn’t feel old and fussy,” Mr. Beard said. “It feels clean.”
Even before Mr. Solow’s example came to market, Botticelli’s prices appeared to be enjoying another comeback. His rarer portraits tend to outsell his religious scenes, but last month Sotheby’s sold a Botticelli featuring “Christ on the Cross adored by Saints Monica, Augustine, Mary Magdalen, Jerome and Bridget of Sweden” for $1.4 million. The same painting sold in 2003 for $284,500.
Botticelli, the son of a tanner, was born Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi in Florence in 1445. Botticelli was a nickname meaning “little wine cask.” He is best known for his elegant, mythological scenes like the “The Birth of Venus” and “Spring,” both in the Uffizi Gallery, but he also painted wall panels on the Sistine Chapel in Rome, made more famous by Michelangelo’s later work on the ceiling. While held in high esteem for much of his life, his works fell out of fashion after his death in 1510 until Pre-Raphaelite artists like Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the mid-19th century started claiming him as a major influence.
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