A $40 Million Botticelli Portrait at Auction

Only a few months after his latest auction record, Sandro Botticelli returns to the auction rooms with a portrait of Christ estimated at $40 million.

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), The Man of Sorrows, late 15th century - early 16th century. Photo © Sotheby's (detail)
Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), The Man of Sorrows, late 15th century - early 16th century. Photo © Sotheby's (detail)

Last January, during the prestigious Masters Week sales organized by Sotheby's, Botticelli's Portrait of a young man holding a medallion shattered his previous record ninefold. Presented with an estimate of around $80 million, the painting was sold for $92.2 million including fees, placing it as the second most expensive old master's painting in the world, after Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi.

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This record sale, which helped to strengthen the market for old masters, seems to have prompted another private collector to part with his painting by the Florentine Renaissance painter. In January 2022, Sotheby's will auction The Man of Sorrows, a portrait painted by Botticelli at the end of his career, when he was influenced by the Dominican reformer Jérôme Savonarola and tended towards a style characterized by Christian Symbolism.

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), The Man of Sorrows, late 15th century - early 16th century. Photo © Sotheby's
Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), The Man of Sorrows, late 15th century - early 16th century. Photo © Sotheby's

Executed between the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th century, the portrait will be presented with an estimate “in excess of $40 million,” the auction house announced. Despite this second appearance on the market in a relatively short period of time, Botticelli's works, and in particular his late works, remain extremely rare at auction. According to Sotheby's, only three other works from this period (after 1492) are known to be in private hands.

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The Man of Sorrows is one of the most striking examples of the painter's late career, illustrating the evolution of his style and the treatment of his subjects at the turn of the 16th century. Unlike the poetic mythological scenes of the previous decade (one thinks in particular of The Birth of Venus and Spring), his production after 1490 is more sober, austere and spiritual. 

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Here, Botticelli transcribes the image of Christ with a certain duality, giving it a nature that is both divine and human. Christ shows his three wounds, two on the hands made during his crucifixion, and one on the chest, inflicted by the lance of a soldier after his death. “The Man of Sorrows is a remarkably realistic portrayal of Christ symbolizing his suffering and death, but with an astounding degree of humanity that is the hallmark of Botticelli’s portraiture, and showcases Christ’s divinity with a stunning psychological depth,” said Christopher Apostle, head of Old Master paintings at Sotheby's in New York. 

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), The Man of Sorrows, late 15th century - early 16th century. Photo © Sotheby's (detail)
Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), The Man of Sorrows, late 15th century - early 16th century. Photo © Sotheby's (detail)

The head of Christ is surrounded by a halo of angels holding the instruments of the Passion, which cover their eyes to express their sorrow in the face of the sufferings of the subject. The swarm of angels is represented in grisaille, a pictorial technique in shades of gray with an exaggerated modeling to create the illusion of sculpture, on a plain black background. 

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“To bring to auction a work by Botticelli of this quality is a major event in the world of Old Masters--but to do so a year after the landmark sale of Botticelli’sYoung Man Holding a Roundel is a once-in-a-generation phenomenon," said George Wachter, Sotheby’s Chairman and Co-Worldwide Head of Old Master Paintings. "This extraordinary painting is a prime example of what makes Botticelli such a captivating artist: a bold visual style coupled with a singularly human approach to portraiture.

Christ as the Man of Sorrows will be presented at an exhibition in Hong Kong from October 7 to 11, before setting off on a world tour to Los Angeles, London, Dubai and finally New York, where it will be auctioned in January.

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