It was during the Early Renaissance years when portraiture first came to be considered high art. Florentine master Sandro Botticelli pioneered this change, by depicting several of his subjects with unprecedented directness and insight, long before Leonardo da Vinci gave us the Mona Lisa.
Botticelli was highly celebrated during his time, and was sought out by the wealthiest patrons from a very early age. While he lived to create some of the most significant portraits in the history of Western art, only a few examples survive today, and barely any are in private hands.
Sotheby’s New York announced that it will be offering one of Botticelli’s most striking portraits, Young Man Holding a Roundel, as the highlight of their Masters Week series scheduled for January 2021. It holds an estimate of over $80 million, which would make it one of the most expensive portraits, of any period, to ever appear at auction, along with Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II, which sold in 2006 for $87.9m, and Vincent Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet, which sold in 1990 for $82.5m.
The work, in tempera on panel, measures 58.7 by 39.7 cm and is in exceptionally good condition, owing partly to the fact that its back was gessoed to prevent the wood from warping. The portrait itself is of a young man, his shoulders turned three-quarters toward the picture plane, his head turned slightly more, displaying with two hands the round gold-ground trecento image of a bearded saint, and gazing intently at the viewer. For all that it embodies of Florentine Renaissance, the painting is remarkably modern with its sharp simplicity and bold color choice.
Young Man Holding a Roundel is comparable in its significance and overall quality with the finest portraits by Botticelli, currently housed at museum collections, particularly Portrait of a young man with the medal of Cosimo de’ Medici at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and Portrait of Giuliano de’ Medici at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. All of these paintings are believed to have been created around the same time, between the mid-1470’s and early 1480’s, a peak time for the artist, when he was working on a series of large-scale allegorical works that today rank among the the most significant works in the history of Western Art, like the Primavera tableau and The Birth of Venus, both at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
The work has remained in private hands for over a century, but has been displayed at various museums as part of long-term loans during the past three decades. Most recently, it was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and the National Gallery in London.
It was first recorded in the 1930’s as part of the collection of Lord Newborough at Caernarfon in Wales. It was believed to have been purchased by his ancestor Sir Thomas Wynn, the first Lord Newborough (1736-1807), while he residing in Tuscany. Between 1935 and 1938 however, the portrait changed ownership through a London dealer to a private collector, whose heirs sold it at auction in 1982 to its current owner for £810,000.
The current auction record for Botticelli’s work was set in 2013, when the so-called “Rockefeller Madonna” (or Madonna and Child with Young Saint John the Baptist) sold for $10.4m. A portrait believed to be the last painting by Botticelli in private hands was offered for $30m by Trinity Fine Art at the Frieze Masters fair in London in October 2019, although it did not sell at the fair.
The work will be on view in London in December and then at Sotheby’s in New York until the sale, which is scheduled to be held in the hybrid live-streamed online format recently adopted by the auction house during the pandemic.