He purchased at least four paintings from Batoni, including an oil painting of John the Baptist in the Wilderness in 1752. Orsini paid by instalments, as can be seen from receipts in the same year preserved in the Archivo Capitolino in Rome which describe ‘un San Gio: Battista nel Deserto dipinto in tela’ (a John the Baptist in the Desert, painted on canvas).
The appearance of a 3ft 2in x 2ft 5in (96 x 74cm) oil on canvas with this subject, monogramed PB and dated 1752, which came up for sale at Plückbaum (25% buyer’s premium) in Bonn in a sale on June 19-20, caused a lot of buzz.
It was certainly fresh to the market, having been in a local collection since the 1930s, if not longer.
Details of the execution, style and form of the monogram and comparison with other works strongly supported the theory that this was the cardinal’s painting. In particular the depiction of the Lamb of God bore a great resemblance to an earlier version of the theme, painted in 1654, and known only from photographs. It belonged to a museum in Dresden and is thought to have been destroyed in the bombing of the city in February 1945.
When he was not working for cardinals, Batoni made his living selling his works to British gentlemen passing through Rome on their Grand Tour.
On auction day, bidding got off to a somewhat sluggish start, but then a handful of international and local bidders drove the price from the guide of €25,000 to an impressive €170,000 (£151,785). The buyer was a British dealer.