Botticelli just makes anticipated amount at Sotheby’s auction, whilst other old masters exceed expectations

Last week saw Sotheby’s sale of old master paintings bringing in a staggering total of $91 million (with buyer’s fees). Despite this being a considerable sum, it is in fact lower than the equivalent sale last year at Sotheby’s, which made $114.5 million. The auction included the much anticipated sale of Sandro Botticelli’s The Man of Sorrows (circa 1500) which, it was revealed earlier this month through the use of technical analysis, has a hidden composition of a Madonna and Child underneath.

The hammer came down on the star lot, Botticelli’s The Man of Sorrows at $39.3 million, slightly below the expected $40 million or over. Nevertheless, the considerable sum has made the painting the second most expensive work by the Florentine artist ever to be sold at auction. The highest price achieved for a Botticelli painting is $92 million, which was the amount his portrait, Young Man Holding a Roundel (circa 1480)sold for at Sotheby’s in January 2021.

Chris Apostle, Head of Sotheby’s Old Masters department, spoke about the work of art following the sale: “Botticelli’s Man of Sorrows is one of the most potent, humbling works I have ever encountered. Though seemingly religious, it’s a painting of enormous humanity – a portrait of human suffering and spirituality that speaks a universal language. Today’s result is not only testament to its power and importance, but also to the timelessness of works painted some 500 years ago.” The work is more religious than many of the earlier Botticelli paintings that the artist is famed for, such as The Birth of Venus (1485-6) and Primavera (1470s-1480s), which are sensual, mythological scenes. It is thought that toward the end of the artist’s life, he became increasingly pious and was a devout follower of the prominent preacher Girolamo Savonarola. Botticelli’s late phase is considered less appealing by some, which may explain why the work did not make as much as Young Man Holding a Roundel. Nicholas Hall, a New York based dealer, said, “there are those who don’t like late Botticelli and his Savonarola-esque phase, which is considered excessively pious and austere”.

Whilst the Botticelli was certainly the highest price of the sale, many other paintings also made records. A number of items from the collection of Swiss investor and banking heir Jacqui E. Safra were sold, including Pieter van Mol’s Diogenes with his lantern looking for an honest man– described in Sotheby’s catalogue as a “relatively unknown artist from the orbit of Rubens” – which sold for an impressive $5.8 million, a record for the artist and double its pre-sale estimate. Safra also sold two works by Artemisia Gentileschi, Portrait of a Seated Lady (1620), which sold for $2.7 million, and Susanna and the Elders (circa 1638), which sold for $2.1 million. A work by Francisco Goya also made a considerable amount – $2.2 million – far surpassing its pre-sale estimate of $400,000-600,000. Another fascinating sale was of an ancient Egyptian limestone figure from the late Fifth Dynasty, which was a huge hit with the hammer coming down at $8.4 million, flying past its pre-sale estimate of $3-5 million.

The Botticelli certainly made the most significant amount, but it seems that it was the less highly anticipated works which exceeded expectations.

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