There are successive stories of old masters on the art market and yet no two are quite alike.
The absolute record for an old masters work, 450 million dollars, was obtained by Christie’s in 2017 for the famous “Salvator Mundi”, a painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci which was contested and overly restored. This sale gave rise to huge waves of controversy.
First off in relation to the painting itself, and which has continued in recent days. Secondly with regards to the seller, the Monaco-based Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev, who is also president of the local football club AS Monaco. He is at the centre of a seemingly interminable legal dispute with freeport owner and art intermediary Yves Bouvier (1) (See here and here the report dedicated to the Salvator Mundi). Thirdly in relation to the man who is in all likelihood the owner of the “Salvator Mundi”, Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, crown prince and deputy prime minister of Saudi Arabia, who wanted to loan it to his friends in Abu Dhabi, specifically to the Louvre AD, before evidently changing his mind and creating a flurry of media confusion. We have yet to see it reappear.
But we can wait: it should be exhibited one day at one of the numerous museums planned for the archaeological site of Al Ula in Saudi Arabia.
Fanatical marketing campaign
On 28 January 2021, this time at Sotheby’s in New York, a youthful painting by one of the giants of the Italian Renaissance, Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), was put up for sale, dating from around 1480. The painting, depicting an elegant yet rather inscrutable young man against a geometric backdrop holding a medallion, is the subject of less conflict. The sale, organized by the American foundation belonging to the late businessman Sheldon Solow – who bought it in 1982 for 1.3 million dollars – was accompanied by a fanatical marketing campaign of the kind that auction houses now do so well, even featuring a virtual reality image that allowed the wider public to have a mini Botticelli at home.
The exact amount of the estimate
It sold for 92.2 million dollars, making it the second highest sum ever recorded for an old master, but also matching the exact amount of its estimate, 80 million dollars, if we exclude tax and commissions. Numerous observers have noted that during the auction, which lasted around 4 minutes, only two bidders competed for the work. While this may seem to indicate the fragility of such a sale, we should also note that this has often been the case for the most expensive lots in recent years.
Christopher Apostle, head of the old masters department at Sotheby’s, comments:”The market for old masters has a very methodical approach. We often have only two bidders. We are not the contemporary art market with its 20 bidders.”
We can imagine it might have been a Russian national who made the acquisition, since the sale was facilitated by a Russian-speaking staffer at Sotheby’s. Rumours are circulating in Moscow that the buyer could be Dmitry Rybolovlev, the same oligarch-collector who sold the overly restored Leonardo.
A source close to the oligarch denied this, claiming that the owner of AS Monaco was not collecting much anymore, art now being associated with feelings of frustration for him, and that in any case Botticelli would not be his first choice.
603 years through various hands
A work like this portrait of a young man, which has passed through various hands for about 603 years, always raises questions. This is consistently the fate of old masters art.
A hole in the CV
And indeed, the painting suffers from a hole in its long and prestigious CV. Archives show no trace of it until the late 18th century, according to the Sotheby’s catalogue. Moreover the big question relates to the medallion fixed to the picture. Is it the original medallion?
This is one of the questions posed by the curator of paintings and drawings at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, Ana Debenedetti, who is also curating an exhibition on Botticelli featuring 49 works by the artist and his atelier which is due to take place in September 2021 at the Musée Jacquemart André in Paris. She estimates that only about 10 portraits by the Italian artist survive today. But she has not asked Sotheby’s for the painting for her exhibition. Explanation: “We will be displaying other masterpieces. We don’t focus on his portraits”.
Not a typical Botticelli
One famous specialist in Renaissance paintings who prefers to remain anonymous explains, “of course the work put up for sale by Sotheby’s is not characteristic of what we would expect from Botticelli: religious or mythological compositions. However the tests have been affirmative regarding its authorship. At the time Botticelli was the most experimental of portraitists. It is a far cry from his Venus and Primavera, but the work wouldn’t look out of place next to the Botticellis at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.”
Although some art historians are casting doubt on its authorship, “Portrait of a Young Man Holding a roundel” has been recognized as a Botticelli by the Metropolitan Museum, who exhibited it as such during the 1980s and between 2013 and 2020, as did Washington’s National Gallery for 23 years.
The London and Milan-based dealer Carlo Orsi put another portrait by Botticelli up for sale for 30 million dollars in 2019 (See the video where he speaks about his Botticelli), despite it being banned from leaving Spanish territory, which rocked the art market at the time. “This is very good news for the old masters field during a particularly difficult period,” highlights Carlo Orsi, who has not yet sold his portrait.
Spirit of Modern art
In fact this painting, with its geometric background and its “collage”, the medallion embedded at the bottom of the composition, is entirely in keeping with the spirit of modern art. In this respect it targets buyers beyond the usual collectors of classic old masters.
The Paris-based private dealer, Etienne Bréton, who’d had the opportunity to see the painting several times over the 23 years it was on display in the National Gallery in Washington – a museum he has sold various works to – was not, along with many of his clients, moved by the portrait of the young man (See here Etienne Breton speaking about the Salvator Mundi).
Power of attraction
“Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel” is not only attractive to the contemporary eye, as well as to lovers of legendary names, but it is also the subject of a cluster of guarantees giving its buyer solid insurance for an extremely rare painting. A good way to attract at least an oligarch.
In conclusion, Christopher Apostle does not reject the idea that the painting may well be on view to the wider public in the near future.
(1) On 25 January 2021 the Genevan press announced that Swiss prosecutors were closing their investigation into allegations of fraud against the art dealer Yves Bouvier.
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