Having sold Young Man Holding a Roundel for $80m (£58.4m) in 2021, this time the auction house offered The Man of Sorrows with an estimate ‘in excess of $40m’.
Before the auction on January 27, a third-party guarantee was arranged to ensure it would sell. On the day, it drew a limited competition and was knocked down slightly below expectations at $39.3m (£29.3m) to a buyer on the phone. With premium, the price was $45.4m. Sotheby’s would not comment on whether the buyer was the third-party guarantor.
Despite the sum being someway behind that for Young Man Holding a Roundel, the price still represents the second-highest Botticelli price at auction and Sotheby’s described it was ‘among the highest prices ever achieved for a Renaissance painting’.
The 2ft 3in x 20in (69 x 51cm) tempera and oil on panel was billed as ‘the defining masterpiece’ of the great Florentine artist’s late career. Depicting the resurrected Christ wearing a crown of thorns, it was dated to the late 15th or early 16th century when the artist adopted a style characterised by visionary symbolism and spirituality.
When it last appeared at auction at Sotheby’s in London in 1963, it was consigned from the collection of Lady Cunynghame and sold for £10,000 – around £400,000 in today’s money. Since then, it remained in the same family collection until the present sale.
Back in 1963 it was sold as a fully ascribed Botticelli, although it hasn’t always been considered an autograph picture. In the 1978 catalogue raisonné by Botticelli scholar Ronald Lightbown, it was listed among the ‘workshop and school pictures’.
Having been reassessed more recently, it appeared as an autograph picture at a dedicated Botticelli exhibition at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt in 2009-10. The attribution has been endorsed by Laurence Kanter, chief curator of European art at Yale University, and Keith Christiansen, chairman of the department of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, according to Sotheby’s.
Interestingly, technical analysis conducted by the auction house revealed an earlier composition beneath the surface of the painting, believed to be an underdrawing for entirely different image (a Madonna and child). Sotheby’s catalogue also stated that the same infrared imaging showed distinct changes observable in the rendering of Christ’s hands which ‘further underscore Botticelli’s authorship’.
The sum for the work raised around half of the $91m (£67.9m) total from the 55-lot sale, with 41 lots (74.5%) finding buyers.
Other highlights included a striking Caravaggesque painting of Diogenes with his lantern by the lesser-known Flemish artist Pieter van Mol (1599-1650). From the collection of financier JE Safra, it was estimated at $2-3m but sold at $4.8m (£3.58m) to a private collector, setting a record for the artist.
Across the week, Sotheby’s staged five Old Master sales while Christie’s held a single online drawings sale in this category which collectively generated $105.5m (£78.7m). This compared to $133m (£97.1m) from the equivalent sales last year – a figure boosted by the even higher selling Botticelli.
Christie’s next ‘Classic Week’ of sales, in which Old Masters feature prominently, takes place in New York in April.
£1 = $1.34