A Rare Botticelli Portrait Sold by Sotheby’s

Michael Coiro
Alexandria
Published in
3 min readMar 16, 2021

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Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel, c. 1480, tempera on poplar wood

This past January, a rare portrait by the Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli sold at Sotheby’s for $92.2 million dollars. While nowhere close to the whopping $450.3 million paid for Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi in 2017, this Botticelli portrait, entitled Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel, is the second most expensive Old Masters work to be sold on the auction block. Additionally, the sale broke the prior record for a Botticelli work, which was $10.4 million for the so-called “Rockefeller Madonna.”

I had the opportunity to view this painting two years ago while on a brief loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I can attest that the portrait is in immaculate condition given its age. The soft blue behind the figure glows in such a warm manner. The smaller size of the portrait (it measures just 23 by 15 ½ in) is quite charming. The framing of the portrait is gently broken by the figure’s left pinky which reaches just beyond the extent of the border, giving the volume and solidity of figure so commonly seen in Botticelli’s work.

Many factors go into the valuation of a work of art. Principally, the artist, pictorial content of the work (think landscape, abstract, portrait), and condition are the main features of a work’s value. However, auction houses are charged with doing more research behind the scenes in order to extract a more detailed and exact value that a piece of art possesses. This research includes investigating the provenance, or prior ownership, of a work, and comparing this genealogy to the work’s wider availability on the market.

In terms of the Portrait of a Young Man, the work traveled through the family of Thomas Wynn, an English political figure in the House of Commons who had ties to Botticelli’s native Italy through his marriage to Maria Stella Petronilla Chiappini in Tuscany. From then until circa 1935, the portrait was passed down to descendants of the Welsh Newborugh family. At this point, the painting was sold to Frank Sabin, who then sold it to the English physicist Sir Thomas Ralph Merton in about 1941. Following his death, the portrait was then descent to his wife, and then finally arrived at its owner prior to the auction.

What does this prior ownership mean for the value of the portrait? While the Wynn family is not an incredibly well-known political name, the family’s elite status as a member of the governing class certainly adds to the value of owning the portrait. In some ways, collectors acquire works of art not just to own a piece of history, but additionally to share that piece of history and join a lineage — that can sometimes be royal or elite — that others are excluded from.

The other aspect of a piece of art’s value that I mentioned at the outset is the work’s larger availability on the market. It is obvious, but worth mentioning that value is increased for works that are one of a kind. One of the reasons that paintings have dominated the upper echelon of price points is for this reason. Prints, drawings, digital art, and even sculpture all have the possibility of reproduction. A painting from the fifteenth century has no possibility of recreation besides forgeries.

This feature of the portrait is further emphasized by the fact that only three of Botticelli’s portraits are currently in existence in private hands. This makes owning a Botticelli portrait very rare, and one that can only be seized with the chunk of change needed. A similar “white whale” in the art world is the Haystacks series by Claude Monet. While Monet painted over twenty-five depictions of this motif capturing sunlight and the seasons, only four remain in private hands. The rest are on lifelong loans to some of the most famous museums in the world. This extremely low number of works available even to the Ultra-High-Net-Worth individuals makes acquiring a Monet Haystack a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

Botticelli’s portrait garners value in a similar manner to the Monet, as well as the countless other works that have entered, exited, and re-entered the auction block that have experienced added value through their provenance. When similar masterpieces from the Old Master’s appear on the art market, look for these trends to continue.

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