Some artworks are priceless: not because the price is too high – no figure is out of reach for some deep pockets – but because the artist is so established that the idea of their work on the market seems almost impossible.
For example, Sandro Botticelli. Think The Birth of Venus painted in the early years of the Florentine Renaissance – the picture of a blonde standing in a sea shell, or Primavera, the allegory of spring and rebirth that has delighted viewers since the 15th century.
But in January, Sotheby's New York will auction Botticelli's Young Man Holding a Roundel (from the 1470s or early 1480s), with the aim of achieving $80 million (Dh294m). The portrait is of a youth from Florence, where Botticelli lived, holding a circular image of a saint: a 14th-century artwork that the artist inserted into his own panel.
Painted in the clear, elegant style associated with Botticelli, the handsome subject smiles serenely – perhaps even smugly – at his viewer. His tightly buttoned dark tunic indicates his high stature, while the clear background, devoid of the cluttered landscape often seen through portrait windows, makes the painting feel remarkably modern.
He would not have known it then, but the sitter has a reason to be smug: this portrait survived the famous Bonfire of the Vanities of 1497, when a priest, Girolamo Savonarola, invited denizens of Florence to burn items deemed sinful by the church, such as cosmetics, art and books. Botticelli is said to have burnt several portraits in the conflagration, though the exact number has never been determined.
The current owner of the painting, who bought the work in 1982, would also be forgiven a smirk or two: the unidentified Sotheby’s seller bought it at auction for £810,000 (Dh2.9m), so stands to make a tidy profit.
The work has been well-exhibited over the past 50 years, in shows at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. But the painting only entered the historical record in the 1930s, when it was in the possession of Lord Newborough at his home in Caernarfon in Wales.
The work is believed to have entered the family collection via his ancestor Sir Thomas Wynn, 1st Lord Newborough (1736-1807), a Welsh politician who lived in Tuscany for a time. The later Lord Newborough sold it to the private collector whose heirs put it up for auction in 1982.
This might be a good time for potential buyers. The art market has contracted, and particularly at the uppermost end. According to Artnet's latest Intelligence Report, the greatest proportion of Old Masters sold at auction in 2020 have been priced from $100,000 to $1m. The segment most affected by the slowdown has been upwards of $10m in Impressionist and Modern, which has shrunk by 70 per cent.
A painting this, however, is sure to find its buyer: if you can afford $80m, you cannot risk waiting for another Botticelli to come to market again.