Rare Botticelli portrait estimated to sell for $80 million at Sotheby’s

After spending nearly 40 years in the hands of one collector, ‘Young Man Holding a Roundel’ by the troubled master Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) is to be sold at Sotheby’s New York for a staggering estimate of US$80 million (£63 million) in January 2021. 

The work will establish art market history as one of the most significant portraits, of any period, ever to appear at auction,” declared Sotheby’s on their website. 

Scholars have described the rare painting as one of the greatest Renaissance masterpieces still in private ownership. Framed by the blue Tuscan sky, it depicts a young nobleman who casts a captivating gaze at the viewer as he sits near a window. In his hands is a roundel of a saint, painted after a work by the Sienese artist Bartolomeo Bulgarini (c.1300-1378). 

Our ‘Young Man’ is 550 years old, yet he looks like he could have strolled into our galleries this morning,” quipped George Wachter, co-chairman of Old Master paintings at Sotheby’s. “He is a true beauty for the ages.” 

His identity has remained a mystery, although some believe he might be the nobleman collector Giovanni de’ Medici (1467-1498). Giovanni’s brother, Lorenzo de’Medici (1463-1503), was one of Botticelli’s most significant patrons. 

Sotheby’s estimate for the portrait is the largest it has ever set for an Old Master at auction. So far, Botticelli’s highest sale price at auction is US$10.4 million (£8.2 million) for ‘The Rockefeller Madonna at Christie’s in 2013. Botticelli’s portrait could be the second-highest sale ever recorded for an Old Master at auction, with the current highest held by Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519) ‘Salvator Mundi’ at US$450.3 million (£353.6 million) at Christie’s.  

 ‘Young Man Holding a Roundel’ also has notable provenance. It spent a lengthy spell in the collection of an ancient Welsh family, having been bought by Sir Thomas Wynn, first Baron of Newborough (1736-1807) whilst he lived in Tuscany. Botticelli’s artwork hung undiscovered to the outside world for many years until a series of quick sales in the 20th century – the current American owners purchased the portrait for £810,000 in 1982. 

This is a painting that transcends the normal boundaries of the old master genre,” explained Wachter, who described it as “one of the best preserved, most exquisite, classical Renaissance portraits that anyone could ever wish to own.” 

There would be more Botticelli paintings in the world had the artist not burnt several of his own works in the “bonfire of the vanities” in 1497. Towards the end of his restless career, Botticelli became influenced by the religious zealot Girolamo Savonarola and fell into poverty. His work also fell out of favour until the 19th century, when scholars rediscovered his revolutionary style in which he abandoned the tradition of depicting sitters in profile.  

It is in his portraits that Botticelli most clearly opens a window on to the world of Renaissance Florence,” concluded Christopher Apostle, head of Old Masters at Sotheby’s New York. “Never more so than in ‘Young Man Holding a Roundel’, a painting that encapsulates the intellectual, courtly and humanistic virtues that define the Italian Renaissance.” 

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