While few fully-attributed works by the great Renaissance artist have ever emerged at auction, Young Man Holding a Roundel has been described by the auction house as comparable “in its inventiveness and superb quality” to some of Botticelli’s finest portraits. It will be offered as part of Sotheby’s Old Master sales series in January.
The current auction record for Botticelli is the $9.25m (£5.88m) bid for The Rockefeller Madonna that sold at Christie’s New York in January 2013.
ATG understands that Sotheby’s consignment has come from a US collection and the vendor bought it at Christie’s London in 1982 for £810,000.
In terms of its earlier provenance, its first securely recorded known owner was Lord Newborough in the 1930s who kept it as part of his collection at Caernarvon in Wales. It is believed to have come to the UK via his ancestor Sir Thomas Wynn, 1st Lord Newborough (1736-1807) who lived in Tuscany.
Between 1935-38, the portrait passed though London dealer Frank Sabin and it was bought by Sir Thomas Ralph Merton in 1941 for £17,000. It was Merton’s heirs who sold it at the 1982 auction.
In the past 50 years, the painting has been on loan for extended periods at the National Gallery in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. It has also featured in major exhibitions at the Royal Academy, the National Gallery of Art, Washington and the Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main.
According to Sotheby’s, the portrait is one of only 12 known portraits by Botticelli and it is thought to have been executed in the late 1470s to early 1480s when the artist painted a series of large-scale mythological and allegorical works as well as a number of celebrated portraits. These include Portrait of a young man with the medal of Cosimo de’ Medici, now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and Portrait of Giuliano de’ Medici, now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
The painting at Sotheby’s differs from other portraits in the way in which Botticelli shows the sitter holding a small roundel in his hand depicting a saint. This roundel is an original 14th-century work attributed to the Sienese painter Bartolomeo Bulgarini. This striking visual device may not just be a compositional element but may also relate to sitter’s identity.
Although Botticelli’s sitters would likely have been well-known to audiences at the time, the nobleman depicted here is now unknown. In the past it has been suggested that the sitter might be Giovanni di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici whose brother Lorenzo was an important patron of Botticelli and for whom Botticelli painted portraits of other family members and their circle.
While the portrait has been described as in “exquisite” condition, technical analysis of the picture has shown that Botticelli subtly adapted the pose and details of the portrait as he worked. X-rays and infra-red reflectograms indicate a structure of incised circles and lines that are characteristic of Botticelli’s method of plotting out his compositions.
They also revealed extensive underdrawing that differs in certain ways from the finished painting. Sotheby’s said it showed “a process of continuous revision is symptomatic of the perfectionist quest for the ideal that is a hallmark of his art”.
Assuming the work sells at its estimated level, it would set the second highest auction price for an Old Master – only behind Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi that sold at Christie’s New York in November 2017 for $400m (£304.2m).