Rare “autograph”-quality paintings by the Early Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli have become the art trade’s equivalent of London buses. You wait and wait and wait, then four of them arrive one after the other.
Scheduled to be auctioned in New York in January 2022, the Botticelli will be unveiled in Hong Kong before a global tour with viewings in Los Angeles, London and Dubai. The painting is certain to sell, courtesy of a pre-auction financial guarantee, and is estimated to raise more than $40 million.
“The Man of Sorrows,” like “Young Man Holding a Roundel,” is an attributional upgrade. The painting, owned by an American collector, last appeared at auction 1963, when it sold for the relatively modest price of £10,000 ($13,600 today). It was listed among the “workshop and school pictures” in Ronald Lightbown’s seminal 1978 catalog of Botticelli’s works, meaning it was thought to have been created by the painter’s students or followers.
A closer view of Sandro Botticelli’s “The Man of Sorrows.” Credit: Courtesy Sotheby’s
But now, following its inclusion in the 2009-2010 exhibition “Botticelli: Likeness, Myth, Devotion” at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, Germany, and a subsequent in-person viewing, “The Man of Sorrows” has been hailed by Laurence Kanter, the chief curator of European art at Yale University Art Gallery, as an autograph-quality masterpiece of the artist’s late period, according to a Sotheby’s catalog.
The upgraded attribution for “The Man of Sorrows” has also been endorsed by Keith Christiansen, the chairman of the department of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, according to Sotheby’s. However, Scott Nethersole, a specialist Botticelli scholar who is Reader in Italian Renaissance Art at the Courtauld Institute in London, remains less convinced of the painting’s fully autograph status.
Botticelli’s late religious paintings from the 1490s onwards are imbued with an otherworldliness that reflects the fervid “bonfire of vanities” preaching of the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, who briefly became the de facto ruler of Florence, before being publicly executed in 1498. Vasari, in his “Lives of the Artists,” from 1550, wrote that Botticelli became an adherent of Savonarola’s sect, which led him to “abandon painting.” Art historians now know that not to be the case. “The Man of Sorrows,” impassively displaying his wounds as a halo of weeping angels holding Instruments of the Passion flutters around his head, has many stylistic similarities with Botticelli’s “Mystic Nativity” in the UK’s National Gallery, signed and dated 1500.
“This is a crossover picture. It could appeal to a contemporary collector,” said Christopher Apostle, Sotheby’s head of Old Master paintings in New York, in a phone interview. “I see a strong, stark, in-your-face image, which seems to be where we get people coming into the market, especially a big name like Botticelli, that they all know and all love.”
The allure of the Botticelli brand isn’t in question. But how can we be sure this picture with a $40 million-plus price tag is a fully “autograph” work by a Florentine Renaissance artist who ran a busy workshop that made large quantities of religious paintings?
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According to Sotheby’s, Lightbown’s 1978 catalogue of Botticelli’s works, written long before tens of millions of dollars could hang on a single attribution, took a “restrictive” view of the artist’s output and didn’t consider works that were collaborations between the mater and his assistants.
Indeed, “Botticelli: Artist and Designer,” currently running at the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris, explores how the artist’s workshop was a “laboratory of ideas,” according to the museum’s website, making paintings that were pretty much all, to varying degrees, collaborative — even in the case of masterworks such as “La Primavera.”
Botticelli’s celebrated portrait, “La Bella Simonetta,” from Frankfurt’s Städel Museum, is one of the star exhibits of this Paris show. Catalogued by Lightbown as a piece by the painter’s workshop, this is nowadays proudly displayed by the German museum as an autograph-quality highlight of its collection.