A long-overlooked painting regarded for decades as the work of Sandro Botticelli’s studio assistants sold at Sotheby’s in New York on Thursday for $45.4 million with fees, kick-starting this year’s cycle of headline-grabbing prices for trophy artworks at auction.
Now billed as a “seminal masterpiece” by the Italian renaissance master, Botticelli’s tempera-on-panel “The Man of Sorrows,” a solemn half-length depiction of the resurrected Christ, was the standout work in a 55-lot sale of old master paintings and sculpture Thursday. Certain to sell for at least $40 million, thanks to a minimum and prearranged “irrevocable bid” from a third-party guarantor, the painting attracted two further bidders. The winning bid, which was not the guarantor’s, was taken by a Sotheby’s old masters specialist, Elisabeth Lobkowicz, in New York. The contest took six minutes, with the bidders tendering tentative $100,000 increments.
“It was the right price for the subject — a ‘Christ of Sorrows,’” said Marco Voena, a partner in the international art dealership Robilant+Voena. “It was a difficult period for Botticelli,” he added, referring to the fervid religiosity of the artist’s late works, which some deem as less beautiful.
“The Man of Sorrows” had last come up for auction, cataloged as a Botticelli, back in 1963, when it sold for a relatively modest $26,000. Ronald Lightbown, the leading Botticelli scholar of the time, later listed the painting among “workshop and school pictures” in his 1978 complete catalog of the artist’s works. It was grouped among “late workshop products from the circle of Botticelli” in Frank Zöllner’s 2005 monograph on the artist.
But in 2009, this long-ignored painting, from an unnamed family collection, was included as an autograph-status work in the exhibition “Botticelli: Likeness, Myth, Devotion,” at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt.
Bastien Eclercy, the Städel’s curator of Italian, French and Spanish paintings before 1800, wrote in the exhibition catalog that the “rediscovered painting from a private collection” not only represented “an important new example of Botticelli’s late period,” but also added a “striking facet to our understanding of the depiction of Christ in the Renaissance.”
The attribution was endorsed by Laurence Kanter, the chief curator of European art at Yale University Art Gallery, and Keith Christiansen, former chairman of the department of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, according to Sotheby’s.
Sotheby’s describes “The Man of Sorrows” as a late work by Botticelli from about 1500, a period when, according to Giorgio Vasari’s 1550 “Lives of the Artists,” the Florentine painter fell under the influence of the fire-and-brimstone preaching of the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, becoming an adherent of the preacher’s sect. Works from Botticelli’s later period have been viewed by modern scholars as being imbued with an intense religious fervor. Sotheby’s composition is notable for its halo of grieving angels circling the risen Christ’s thorn-crowned head.
The re-attributed painting, billed by Sotheby’s as the “defining masterpiece of Botticelli’s late career,” was given a global marketing tour with viewings in Los Angeles, London, Dubai and New York. It was hung on its own in sepulchral gloom next to photographs that invited prestigious comparisons with Albrecht Dürer’s famous “Self-Portrait” in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, and Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi,” or “Savior of the World,” which sold for $450.3 million at Christie’s, a record for any artwork offered at auction.
It proved to be the second big-ticket Botticelli sold by Sotheby’s in the space of 12 months. Last January, “Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel,” from the estate of the New York-based real estate magnate and art collector Sheldon Solow, sold for $92.2 million, a record price for both a Botticelli at auction and an old master picture at Sotheby’s.
Comparing Thursday’s sale to the one last January, Fabrizio Moretti, director of the London-based old master dealership Moretti Fine Art Ltd., said that “The Man of Sorrows” was “very religious, introspective and powerful. The proportion of half the price is about right.”
Hugo Nathan, a partner in the London-based art advisers Beaumont Nathan, said that he did not recommend “The Man of Sorrows” to his clients.
“It was a huge price,” he said. “And personally, I didn’t love the picture. The hands are so awkward. It wasn’t a picture to fire the imagination.”