Last night saw the long-awaited portrait by Italian Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel, crowned as the second most expensive Old Master artwork to sell at auction. It fetched an astounding US$92.2m with fees, trailing behind Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci. It is also a record-high for the artist and the most valuable Old Master painting ever sold at Sotheby’s.
The bidder, though unnamed, was presented by a specialist who works with Russian clients, pointing to the identity of the painting’s new owner. The underbidder, the auction house revealed, was an Asian collector.
Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) is now the second most valuable Old Master artwork
The 550-year-old painting is one of the few portraits by Botticelli left in private hands. It was consigned by American real estate billionaire Sheldon Solow, who bought the work for £818,000 in 1982 - around US$1.3m back then. The new record means the painting holds a 70 times increase in value over the course of nearly four decades.
The blockbuster of the night was not backed by a third-party guarantee and received a pre-sale estimate in excess of US$80m. Auctioneer Oliver Barker opened the sale at US$70m and with increments of US$2m, the bidding climbed rather slowly. A client represented by New York’s Alexander Bell, Joint International Department Head of Sotheby’s Old Master Painting department, took the bid to US$78m. Yet it was the client on the phone with Lilija Sitnika, Director of Russia Desk in Sotheby’s London, who took the bid to US$80m when the auctioneer brought the hammer down. With fees, the work was sold for US$92.2m, despite the uncertainty prior to the sale.
According to Sotheby’s website, Lilija Sitnika “is responsible for advising Russian and CIS collectors on their art acquisitions.” The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) refers to a total of 11 countries from the former Soviet republics, including Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan.
Leading the proceedings in London, Auctioneer Oliver Barker took bids from online as well as specialists in New York, London, and Asia
Lilija Sitnika (upper right) outbid Alexander Bell (lower right) and won the painting for her client on the phone
The consignor of the stunning portrait was a New York real estate tycoon Sheldon Solow, who amassed a net worth of US$3.1 billion before his passing, according to Bloomberg. The self-made billionaire also boasted an impressive art collection, spanning everything from Renaissance paintings to modern artworks. It is estimated that the billionaire had sold over US$400m worth of art collection over the past decade.
The present work by Botticelli was acquired by Solow in 1982, for £818,000 (around US$1.3m back then). He died at age 92 in November 2020, two months after Sotheby's announcement that the auction house would be presenting the work in the sale. His wife and son soon revealed their intent to establish a new museum, dedicated to Solow’s massive art collection, which led to speculation within the industry that the Botticelli portrait could be withdrawn.
Sheldon Solow, late American billionaire and real estate developer, also the consignor of the present work
The painting itself, that dates back to the 15th century, was one of the only three portraits by Botticelli. It portrays a young man presenting a roundel of a bearded saint - which is also one of the most striking features of the present work. It is a testament to the ideology and exemplification of beauty during the Renaissance period in Rome. The Florentine master was instrumental in advancing portraiture to a more modern form.
Through the painter’s pioneering vision in the genre, the portrait demonstrates a crisp composition and carefully incised lines. It is such a timeless piece yet it feels profoundly modern. The composition is comparable to yet another portrait by the artist, Portrait of a Man with a Medal of Cosimo the Elder.
Portrait of a Man with a Medal of Cosimo the Elder by Sandro Botticelli, collection of Uffizi Galleries in Tuscany, Italy
Lot 15 | Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel
Tempera on poplar panel
Dimensions: 58.4 x 39.4 cm
- Most probably acquired by Sir Thomas Wynn, 3rd Bt and later Baron, 1st Lord Newborough (1736–1807) in Tuscany, where he lived from 1782–91 and married his second wife, Maria Stella Petronilla Chiappini;
- Thence probably by descent to his son, Thomas John Wynn, 2nd Lord Newborough (1802-1832), Glynllifon Park, Llanwnda, Caernarvon;
- Thence probably by inheritance to his brother, Spencer Bulkeley Wynn, 3rd Lord Newborough (1803-1888), Glynllifon Park, Llanwnda, Caernarvon;
- Thence by descent to his youngest son, Frederick George Wynn (1853-1932), Glynllifon Park, Llanwnda, Caernarvon;
- Thence by inheritance to his nephew Thomas John Wynn (1878-1957), 5th Lord Newborough, Glynllifon Park, Llanwnda, Caernarvon;
- From whom acquired by Frank Sabin, circa 1935;
- By whom sold to Sir Thomas Ralph Merton (1888-1969), Stubbings House, Maidenhead, by May 1941;
- Thence by descent to his wife, Violet Marjory Merton (1891–1976);
- By whose Trustees sold ("The Property of the late Lady Merton, sold by Order of the Trustees"), London, Christie’s, December 10, 1982, lot 92 (as a "Portrait of Giovanni di Pierfrancesco de' Medici");
- Where acquired by the present owner
Estimate: In excess of US$80,000,000
Starting bid: US$70,000,000
Hammer price: US$80,000,000
Though the identity of the young man portrayed is not known, the appreciation of the highly prized work comes from its ability to transcend time.
A face of beauty: The elegantly contoured face of the young man embodies the ideals of Renaissance beauty. The painter took a departure from the standard portrayal: instead of gazing out of the picture, the young man looks directly at the viewers in an inviting manner. His wavy hair, cut shorter at the front, and tampered to a long mane at the nape of his neck, also highlights the Renaissance fashion.
A sense of style: The dark colored tunic, in a simple but elegant design, allows the collar of the white shirt to peek out, fitting for an upper-class individual at the time when the portrait was painted.
The illustration of shadow: The way how the two fingers of the young man’s left hand rest on the parapet while supporting the roundel casts a shadow that adds to the illusionism of the medallion by making it appear set back in the picture.
Setting: The young man, sitting in front of a simple window frame against a light blue background. The setting of the portrait is not the least bit distracting and is profoundly modern to the 21st-century eyes.
The second work: Set into the panel, the 14th-century roundel depicts a male saint in the act of blessing. It is also seen as a deliberate device by the artist to suggest the fragility of life through the juxtaposition between the young man and the rigidity of the saint in the roundel.
Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel (details)
In Early Renaissance Italy, portraits of notable individuals were considered high art. Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, better known as Sandro Botticelli, was at the forefront of a transformation to depict his subjects with unprecedented directness and insight, back in the 15th century.
There are around 10 surviving examples of Botticelli’s portraits, many of which reside in major museums, including the iconic Primavera and The Birth of Venus. For over half a century, the Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel was on a long-term loan at the National Gallery in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. It was also featured in prominent exhibitions at the Royal Academy, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and the Städel Museum in Frankfurt.
Auction house: Sotheby’s New York
Sale: Master Paintings & Sculpture Part I
Date: January 28, 2021
Lots offered: 43 (excluding withdrawals)
Sell-through rate: 69.7%
Sale total: US$114,502,900