Commentary: Wanna buy a Botticelli? The masterpiece coming to auction, and who might nab it

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Sandro Botticelli, "Young Man Holding a Roundel" circa 1480, tempera on poplar panel
Sandro Botticelli, "Young Man Holding a Roundel" circa 1480, tempera on poplar panel. (Sotheby's)

Who wants to buy a Botticelli?

Now’s your chance. A lovely portrait with an excellent pedigree by the Florentine Renaissance painter who gave us “The Birth of Venus,” that favorite pagan image for jigsaw puzzles, refrigerator magnets and novelty throw pillows, comes on the auction market later this month.

This Sandro Botticelli picture is not a subject from Greek or Roman myth, nor does it show a biblical event — the two subject areas for which the artist is best known. Instead, it is a rarer portrait. We don’t know the identity of the young man, shown half-length and in three-quarter view, seated before a window opening onto a clear blue sky.

He wears a dark mauve doublet, setting off the peach-blush of his cheeks, while his light-brown hair, parted down the middle, cascades to his shoulders. (A timeless look: I had the same haircut in 1970.) Resting on a ledge, the young man’s hands hold a medallion-like painting of an equally anonymous saint.

The saint medallion is a 14th century, gold-ground picture by Sienese artist Bartolomeo Bulgarini that has been inserted into a cavity of Botticelli's wood panel, then surrounded by a painted frame. Botticelli's illusionistic frame is slightly tilted back in space, while Bulgarini's bearded saint is as flat and frontal as any medieval picture could be.

One consequence: The look on the saint’s face, eyes cast up and to the side, outside the frame, appears vaguely concerned rather than confident and serene.

Sandro Botticelli, "Young Man Holding a Roundel (detail)," circa 1480.
Sandro Botticelli, "Young Man Holding a Roundel (detail)," circa 1480. (Julian Cassady Photography)

No one is quite sure whether Botticelli or someone later made the addition. Some have guessed that the saint might be the portrait subject’s namesake, but we have no way of knowing for sure. (Among other things, the saint is shown without any identifying attributes, such as an animal or tool.) It is not uncommon for a sitter’s identity to be lost as centuries drift by, although I have always found the fact to be a bit strange.

Botticelli was a big deal in his day. For comparison, imagine no one knowing who that man or woman is in a commissioned Warhol portrait? Even though his reputation later dimmed, not to be revived until the end of the 19th century, when the dominance of Rome in Italian art history had withered, you would think a portrait by a celebrated Florentine Renaissance artist would be something of a family heirloom.

The subject is a teenage (or maybe 20-something) aristocrat whose delicate features, slender, uncalloused fingers and rather indifferent gaze are more Jared Kushner than Giuliano de' Medici, co-ruler of Florence and Botticelli patron whose assassination at the age of 24 marked a failed attempt by a rival banking family to seize power in the city. (Florentine bankers were even more rapacious than those today — but, then again, the anti-Medici crowd had backroom help from the Pope for their nefarious coup attempt.) Botticelli’s boy may have been a friend of Giuliano, given the similarity in age, social station and the patron’s connection to the artist. Who knows?

Not Sotheby’s, which is otherwise going all out for the Jan. 28 auction in New York of the Botticelli, “Young Man Holding a Roundel,” circa 1480. The estimate for the painting is by request, but reports peg the number at $80 million.

That’s a lot of money. Still, it is considerably less than you would have to fork over for a Giacometti sculpture made within the last 75 years. Three of those — all casts from multiple editions — have sold for more than $100 million over the past decade.

When adjusted for inflation, the estimate is also roughly what the J. Paul Getty Museum paid for the great “Portrait of a Halberdier (Francesco Guardi?)” by Pontormo, painter from the next generation of great Florentine artists after Botticelli, when it acquired the picture at a Christie’s auction in 1989. The $35.2 million that the museum spent then would translate to more than $73 million now.

Will the Getty go after the Botticelli? The museum unsurprisingly declined to comment, but I would imagine it would be more than happy to hang the portrait in its galleries. The painting is great.

When the Pontormo went on the auction block, it had been on loan from a private collection to the Frick museum in New York for nearly 20 years. The Botticelli portrait has been on loan to the National Gallery of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art for about the same length of time. A Getty purchase would perform a laudable public service by keeping it on permanent view.

Few art museums have the financial wherewithal to make that happen. (The Getty Trust’s endowment stands in excess of $7 billion.) But there is no guarantee; 2021 unfurls in a different art universe from 1989.

Back then, a few days before the auction took place, I could confidently write that “the Getty will buy” the Pontormo — not because I had a crystal ball, but because the supply and the demand were so obviously in sync: The hugely rich museum had not yet opened, the existing collection was mediocre and needed major upgrades, and bidding competition at those dizzy heights would be slim or nonexistent.

Slam dunk. A painting of that exceptional caliber was not about to slip through the Getty’s hands.

The quality of the museum’s collection has grown by leaps and bounds since then — but, unfortunately for us in Los Angeles, so has the pool of potential bidders elsewhere. Art and art museums did not possess anywhere near the international cachet they can claim today, while art buyers from Riyadh to Shanghai have emerged with seemingly bottomless pocketbooks.

American billionaires alone have seen their obscene wealth balloon by a trillion dollars since the COVID-19 pandemic began, according to a recent analysis by the Institute for Policy Studies. The Getty might be interested — it has no Botticelli in its European paintings collection — but it would be unlikely to be lonely in a pursuit.

Sotheby’s has produced a lavish digital catalog for the picture, complete with short, sometimes illuminating essays by notable scholars from Yale, Harvard, Rutgers and New York University. They lay out the 15th century history, including the importation of individual portraiture, a relatively new subject for painting, to Italy from Northern Europe.

Yet, what really makes the Botticelli so appealing is less the past than the present. How uncannily modern it looks!

Posed in a narrowly impossible space between a blank, gray railing and a blank, gray window wall, the young man could be anywhere — or nowhere. His head is framed by the window’s soft, atmospheric blue rectangle, a pure geometric abstraction that is more like a 1960s Light and Space environment by Robert Irwin or Doug Wheeler than a Renaissance slice of heavenly sky.

Sandro Botticelli, "Young Man Holding a Roundel (detail)," circa 1480, tempera on poplar panel.
Sandro Botticelli, "Young Man Holding a Roundel (detail)," circa 1480, tempera on poplar panel. (Julian Cassady Photography)

The European convention for such portraits was to unfurl a landscape outside the window, giving the sitter dominion over the world he occupies or embedding her more deeply in it (think of Leonardo da Vinci’s slightly later “Mona Lisa,” her hair and garments entwined with rivers and ravines in the distance). Here, by contrast, the idealized space of the picture focuses attention on the young man, while lifting him out of mundane experience in worldly life.

That might help explain the insertion of the mysterious, ethereal saint. The kicker, though, lies elsewhere, in the young man’s hands holding the roundel.

The fingers protrude almost imperceptibly in front of the painting’s carefully articulated picture plane, its flatness emphasized by all those rectangular geometries. At the bottom, where the railing separates our actual space from the man’s fictive space, a subtle shadow is cast back on the picture you are looking at. Ours is the presumed source of the shadow’s light, not the painted blue window in back.

Botticelli has painted a picture of consciousness — his own, as well as the sitter’s. The young man’s subtly demonstrative hands become a kind of echo reaffirming the miraculous hand of this exceptional painter.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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