On Thursday morning in New York, Sotheby’s sold an impeccably preserved painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli for $92.2 million, a 787% increase from the artist’s previous, 2013 auction record of $10.4 million.
The painting, was executed around 1480 and depicts an elegant young manlightly holding a roundel of a saint. For the last 40 years, it had been in the possession of the late real estate developer Sheldon Solow, who purchased the work in 1982. Over time, the billionaire slowly donated fractions of the painting to his private foundation; at the time of the sale, his foundation owned at least 99% of the painting, saving the Solow family some $33 million in capital gains taxes.
Solow, who died in November at 92, purchased the work for $1.3 million, meaning the sale realized an appreciation of about 6,992
The painting is widely considered the finest Botticelli in private hands. “I deal in this period, and it’s so rare to find a painting [like this] in great condition,” says Fabrizio Moretti, the founder of Moretti, an old masters gallery in London. “This is an occasion to buy something you’ll never find again.”
The work is one of only about a dozen extant portraits by the artist and contains many of the stylistic components he’s best known for (the expressive eyes, the illusionistic depth, and decidedly lifelike countenance). Just as important, it portrays a handsome, charismatic subject.
“Botticelli is an iconic painter,” says the Milanese dealer Carlo Orsi. “He’s like Michelangelo and Leonardo—there are a few iconic names, and they are so rare in the art market. That’s the reason they can go for big price.”
Sotheby’s estimated that it would sell “in excess of” $80 million, putting it within reach of only the wealthiest institutions or private buyers.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Getty in Los Angeles were the museums most dealers speculated would bid on the work; as for private individuals, most dealers speculated that wealthy Americans—flush from spectacular market returns in 2020—or oil-rich collectors in the United Arab Emirates would be bidding on it in search of an unmatched trophy. “Even contemporary art collectors can go for it,” said Orsi prior to the sale.
A Very Modern Picture
The painting was the 15th lot in Sotheby’s Old Masters sale on Jan. 28.
Like most recent major auctions, it was streamed live but without an in-person audience; the camera toggled between auction house specialists on stage sets in New York and London.
Bidding for the work began slowly at $70 million—and never really took off. Competition remained exclusively between Sotheby’s specialists Alexander Bell and Lilija Sitnika, bidding on behalf of clients on the phone.
After a little more than four minutes of back and forth, which included cajoling from the auctioneer Oliver Barker that included the line “I doubt there’s going to be another one coming too soon, you might want to tell them that,” he brought the hammer at a final price of $80 million, which grew to $92.2 million with premiums.
“It’s thin air up there,” says the Sotheby’s Christopher Apostle, who’s head of the department of old master paintings. “I feel very happy—I don’t think we left money on the table, it’s a great result.”
The price exceeds all but a handful of old master sales and is more in line with the spectacular prices achieved for contemporary art. (The $450 million paid for Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi in 2017 is very much an outlier.)
Last January, for instance, Sotheby’s solda rediscovered drawing by Andrea Mantegna for $11.7 million and a painting of the Madonna by Tiepolo for $17.3 million on the same day; in 2016, Christie’s facilitated the €160 million ($178.4 million at the time) private sale of two Rembrandt portraits, which at the time was a record.
And indeed, ahead of the sale, dealers were anticipating that the work would compare to those by living artists that have historically soared to nine-figure sums.
“It’s something that’s very modern, which can sit next to a Pollock or anything else important—even a Jeff Koons,” says Orsi. “It feels very fresh.”
The buyer of the work was not immediately known.
(Updates with appreciation percentage of painting and Rembrandt sale price, and adds quote from Sotheby’s in the 13th paragraph. A previous update corrected spelling of the artist Mantegna.)