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A Rare Botticelli Portrait Could Reach a Record-Setting $80 Million at Auction

"Young Man Holding a Roundel" will be sold in January 2021.

Sandro Botticelli, Young Man Holding a Roundel, ca. 15th century. Julian Cassady Photography/Sotheby's

A rare 15th century portrait by Italian painter Sandro Botticelli is going up for auction. Sotheby’s has announced that the work, titled Young Man Holding a Roundel, will be sold in January 2021 in an Old Masters evening sale at the house’s New York headquarters, where it is expected to achieve an estimated $80 million.

The piece features a bust-length portrait of a noble sitter, who is believed by scholars to be made in the image of a Medici family member. In the present work, Botticelli’s young noble holds a roundel depicting a saint, painted after Sienese artist Bartolommeo Bulgarini’s work. Experts believe the work may have been done on commission.

According to Christopher Apostle, Head of Sotheby’s Old Master Paintings Department in New York, there are only 12 known portraits by Botticelli, making this one a rare work in the Renaissance artist’s oeuvre. “It’s an exceptionally rare thing within his known corpus,” Apostle said in an interview. “This is something that would have been more personal than, say, the Madonna and Child.” According to Apostle, the presentation of the roundel is intended to denote the sitter’s confirmation of his education and align him with the “ancient Roman model of civic engagement.”

The painting is poised to reach a record price for the artist. The highest price achieved for the artist at auction is $10.4 million for the sale of The Rockefeller Madonna at Christie’s in 2013. That work doubled its low pre-sale estimate of $5 million. If the portrait headed to auction in 2021 reaches its estimate of $80 million, it will be the second-highest price ever recorded for an Old Masters work at auction. It would rank next to the $450.3 million sale of Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi in 2017 at Christie’s and above the $76.5 million price for Peter Paul Rubens’s Massacre of the Innocents, sold in July 2002 at Sotheby’s.

The work comes to sale from an American collection, and it has changed hands several times. Its first recorded owner in the 1930s as Tuscany-based Sir Thomas Wynn, 1st Lord Newborough (1736–1807). It went to his descendants and was acquired in 1935 by British dealer Frank Sabin for £12,000. It then went to Sir Thomas Ralph Merton in 1941 for £17,000, whose heirs sold it in 1982 at auction. It was purchased by the owner in 1982 at a Christie’s London sale for just £810,000.

Over the past five decades, the painting been exhibited widely. It has been on loan at the National Gallery in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Most recently, the work featured in Botticelli surveys at the Royal Academy, the National Gallery of Art, and the Städel Museum.

Comparable examples are considered major works, with some residing in top museum collections such as those of the Gallerie degli Uffizzi in Florence, whose Botticelli holdings are particularly deep, and the National Gallery of Art. All are thought by scholars to have been completed in the late 1470s and early 1480s, during a time a time when Botticelli was beginning to develop large-scale allegorical works, including his masterpieces Primavera and The Birth of Venus.

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