Back on June 28th, a painting in the style of Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445-1510) – he of the iconic “Birth of Venus” (c. 1485), or as I like to call it, “Venus on a Half-Shell” – came up for sale at auction in Zurich, with a pre-sale estimate of $5,000. A bidding war ensued, and the final hammer price was $6.4 million. Clearly, some bidders were convinced that this was a piece by the Renaissance master himself, even though the auction house had made no such claim. I think it’s an illustrative example of why sometimes, when art comes to auction, it’s impossible to predict what buyers will do, and why you have to go in with your eyes open and a fixed price firmly in your mind, if you’re interested in bidding on something.
The picture in question, which shows a young man with red hair dressed in a blue tunic, placed in an architectural setting with a landscape beyond, is reminiscent of other portraits by the artist and his circle. For example, Botticelli’s bust-length “Portrait of Giuliano de Medici” (1478), now in the National Gallery here in DC, depicts the murdered brother of Lorenzo the Magnificent. The subject is placed in an architectural space with a half-open window behind him, although he looks down and away, rather than directly out toward the viewer.
If you take a look at the slightly earlier “Adoration of the Magi” (1475-76) which Botticelli painted for a chapel in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence and in which both Lorenzo and Giuliano de Medici appear, the figure of a young man wearing a golden cloak and standing at the far right of the picture has always been believed to be a self-portrait by the artist. At this point in his career, Botticelli is a rising young star in the art world, and he’s receiving commissions from the most powerful families and Florence, so perhaps not surprisingly he appears to be a bit full of himself. The brushwork, the pose, and the shading are all rather reminiscent of the Zurich picture.
However there’s significant room for doubt here. A painting that is similar to the Zurich work, depicting a young man framed by an open window, is also in the collection of the National Gallery, and for many years was attributed to Botticelli. Many experts now believe that it is by one of Botticelli’s pupils, Filippino Lippi (1457-1504). As in the Zurich picture, the model in the Lippi portrait has red hair, albeit of a darker shade, is dressed in blue, and looks calmly out of the picture at the viewer.
Then there is this picture, currently in a private collection, which shows another red-headed young man, this time dressed in black, standing in front of an open window and holding a small icon. Like the Zurich picture and the Lippi portrait, the gaze of the sitter is outward, calm, and confident. Attribution on this one is so uncertain that the best experts can commit to is that it could be by Botticelli, or it could be by other artists who trained in Botticelli’s workshop.
Tests carried out on the Zurich painting confirmed that it was painted roughly during the time period when Botticelli lived and worked. While not in and of itself dispositive, the results did rule out the possibility that the piece was a later copy or pastiche. However, the condition report on the panel when it arrived was not very favorable, and word was that there was quite a bit of overpainting and restoration, which doesn’t help in the process of identification.
Be that as it may, on the day three bidders entered into a frenzy trying to grab the picture. The auction record for a Botticelli currently stands at about $10.4 million, when a “Madonna and Child with Saint John the Baptist” by the master was sold at Christie’s New York back in 2013. Botticelli’s paintings rarely come on the market, since the overwhelming majority are held in museums. So if the new owner of the Zurich picture did his homework and got the piece properly cleaned and examined by experts who could confirm the artist’s hand at work in the painting, he’s almost certainly going to make money off his gamble.
And to my mind, gambling is exactly what was going on with the sale of this painting, particularly when, as stated earlier, the auction house made no claims as to who painted it. As I always caution others when they’re thinking of bidding on an object at auction, the way to think about a work of art that you’d like to own is to ask yourself what you would be willing to lose, if it turned out to be not quite what you hoped it would. It’s the same philosophy I employ on those very rare occasions that I find myself at a casino. I decide in advance what I’m prepared to lose, looking at my gambling stakes as a finite entertainment expense, and then I play until that amount is spent; my winnings, if any, don’t go back into my stakes.
In this case, in the cold light of day I don’t know that I would have paid $6.4 million or even $6,000 for this work. That’s a lot of lolly for something that isn’t particularly remarkable to look at. Perhaps this portrait is indeed by Botticelli, and perhaps it isn’t: I’m certainly not in any position to make a pronouncement. I just hope, for the new owner’s sake, that his hunch about the authorship of this picture is correct.