The portrait of a young man, offered for sale at Schuler on June 28, had been in a Swiss private collection since 1924. A spokesman for the auction house told ATG: “Nobody could believe their eyes or ears at what was happening in the room.”
Multiple international bidders – several in the room and 13 on the phone – were prepared to overlook extensive overpaint and what had been a highly critical conservation report.
The 21 x 13in (53 x 34cm) panel featured an old repair while analysis provided to the auction house by the Swiss Institute for Art Research in Zürich had found “extensive manipulations in principal parts of the portrait and the results of a post-1961 restoration, which fundamentally detract from the historic authenticity”.
Although the report said that the underlying panel and painting were dateable to the late Middle Ages, the Schuler catalogue also quoted its conclusion that the “reworking was possibly not intended to restore the painting, but rather to manipulate the subject, to achieve an attribution”.
However, the picture came with a long provenance. Its first documented appearance was an enthusiastic mention in 1924 by the German art historian and curator Wilhelm von Bode of a newly discovered Botticelli in the annals of the Prussian art collections (Jahrbuch der Preussischen Kunstsammlungen).
It was catalogued as a Botticelli in 1953 by the Frick Art Reference Library and 25 years later made it into Gabriel Mandel’s catalogue raisonné, but not into an American compendium by Ronald Lightbown published in 1978. On occasions it has been classified as the work of Filippino Lippi, Botticelli’s one-time pupil.
Despite these caveats, the huge price indicated that bidders felt that restoration work may yield an important discovery.
The final bid was placed by an international dealer and a round of applause greeted the fall of the gavel. With premium added, Schuler’s buyer will be paying a total of more than SFr7.5m.
Only one work fully attributed to Botticelli has fetched more at auction – the ‘Rockefeller Madonna’ that made a premium-inclusive $10.44m (£6.61m) paid at Christie’s in New York in January 2013.
Questions of attribution are not out of the ordinary when it comes to Botticelli. Sotheby’s latest Old Master evening sale in London on July 3 included a picture catalogued as ‘Sandro Botticelli and Studio’.
This typical ‘Botticelli’ devotional image of the Madonna and Child had been deemed a ‘workshop’ picture by some art historians although others believed the hand of Botticelli was present in at least parts of it.
It was announced online and in the room immediately before the sale that chief curator at Yale, Prof Laurence Kanter, had since inspected the work and declared it to be entirely by the hand of Botticelli, dating it to the same moment as the Bardi altarpiece c.1485.
Whether this led to more interest is unclear, although three phone bidders took it over a £1.5m-2m estimate before it was knocked down at £2.5m.