What a US$92 million painting says about new art market values

Ahead of its auction in New York, Sotheby’s sent a 15th-century painting by early Italian Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli on a world tour, traveling from New York to Dubai, London and Los Angeles to pique interest.

While the painting was in London, a group of dealers, collectors and curators who had gathered to admire it got into conversation: Was the estimate of “over $ 80 million” for an exquisitely preserved portrait of a beautiful boy Man in appropriate? a lush purple doublet? Opinions were so different that an informal bet began. Everyone wrote their bet on a piece of paper; The furthest from the correct price would be to buy the rest of the dinner.

It was a fun idea at first, “but now it’s become a real problem,” says Jorge Coll, co-manager of the Colnaghi Gallery of Old Masters, founded in 18th century London. “More people have joined the bet and now the man who lost has to pay for an expensive dinner.”

The portrait of a young man with a roundel was finally hammered for $ 80 million on Jan. 28. The auction house fees totaled $ 92.2 million. When this Botticelli was last available almost 40 years ago, it was sold for about $ 1.3 million to real estate billionaire Sheldon Solow. The auction brought his private foundation (Solow died in November) a return of almost 7,000 percent. The highest public sale of the artist’s work before that was in 2013, when a small painting of the Madonna sold for $ 10.4 million.

Coll and his friends weren’t the only ones speculating on the estimate. Most experts couldn’t agree on what it was worth as Sotheby’s rating was unprecedented. “No Botticelli sold for anything like this,” said dealer Patrick Matthiesen before the sale began. “I think the price for this painting should be $ 30 million to $ 50 million. Still, I don’t deny for a minute that it could become clear [US$80 million] in a moment. “

However, some traders argued that there was indeed a precedent – it just had nothing to do with Botticelli. The benchmark for sales of the portrait was set by other artists – including Jeff Koons’ Rabbit ($ 91 million at Christie’s in 2019), a painting of a skull by Jean-Michel Basquiat ($ 110.5 million at Sotheby’s in 2017)) and especially a painting of Jesus Christ by Leonardo da Vinci.

When Salvator Mundi sold for $ 450 million in Christie’s New York in 2017, it was easily the most expensive painting to ever sell at auction. Furthermore, it has been a lesson for art dealers everywhere: a select group of very, very wealthy people are willing to pay for the best – or at least the best available – example of an artist’s work, provided, of course, the artist is famous. So the only question is how convincingly salespeople can take the case.

“The people at Christie’s who made it [promotional] The video for Salvator Mundi should have won an Oscar, ”says Coll. The video in question, The Last Da Vinci: The World Is Watching, is a four-minute film that features rapid-fire clips of people of all ages, races, and classes staring at the picture and often crying – the actual artwork is never shown. “You took the picture out of the equation,” says Coll. “When you watch something like this, it’s the same emotion as when you hear your national anthem. How can you rate that? “

Christopher Apostle, head of old master paintings at Sotheby’s, has a slightly different explanation for Botticelli’s assessment, but it still comes back to the notion that so-called masterpieces are in a class of their own. “I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, I can make this a cultural phenomenon,'” he says, adding that the Leonardo sale was evidence of nothing more than “sometimes things happen at auction.”

Instead, the apostle says, “You have to look at the full range of a masterpiece, and I don’t think there is any difference between a masterpiece by Basquiat, Rembrandt, or Botticelli.” In other words, Young Man Holding a Roundel shouldn’t be against others Botticellis are rated. Rather, it should be rated as the best possible version of a work of art by a superstar artist. “I’ve always had the feeling that this is a picture that falls into a category of its own,” says the apostle. “I looked at Picasso and Basquiat the same way I looked at any other old master.”

That may sound like hype, but there is almost unanimous consensus that this Botticelli is actually the most beautiful portrait that is still in private hands. “Without a doubt, it is the best painting by old masters that has come on the market in the last 10 years, and for me in the last 20 years,” says Fabrizio Moretti, founder of the Moretti Gallery in London. “I occupy myself during this time and it is so rare to find a painting [like this] in very good condition. “

Most recently, Carlo Orsi, a dealer in London and Milan, brought another Botticelli portrait to the 2019 Frieze Masters art fair in London. Valued at about $ 30 million, the work was “a very well-known portrait full of history,” Orsi says, but notes that the Spanish government listed it as a work of cultural interest, which means it is the work couldn’t leave the country for long. In view of the temporary export license for the painting, the price has been suppressed. No buyer could be found.

“When you watch something like this, it’s the same emotion as when you hear your national anthem. How can you rate that? “

Despite this setback, Orsi strongly supports the evaluation of Young Man Holding a Roundel. “If you want one, you can steal it from a museum,” he says, “but there aren’t any others.”

It’s an argument that is sure to resonate with the buyer of the work, whose identity is still unknown at the time of going to press, although whispers from the art world suggest it may be a Russian oligarch. During the bidding process, Sotheby’s auctioneer Oliver Barker, which was set up for streaming viewers only in the house’s set, opened a price of $ 70 million. Only two bidders – both on the phone with auction house specialists – came to the board; one seemed to resign after a single commandment. It still took four minutes for the hammer to drop as Barker tried to lure the collector back into battle. The total was certainly “more than $ 80 million” as Sotheby’s had predicted, but not much more.

This wasn’t good news for Coll, who would have bet it would sell for $ 200 million and is now hooked for a very expensive meal. “There will be 10 people in a good restaurant,” he says. “At some point I thought I should bid for the painting because it’ll be cheaper than dinner.” Still, he says, it could be worse. “If it weren’t sold, I’d still have to pay and we wouldn’t have anything to celebrate. Because if the world of the old masters can still generate sales of 100 million US dollars, I’ll be happy. “

4,999 luxury for the price of a masterpiece

What else can you buy that adds up to $ 92 million?

2,580 bottles of Bowmore’s 30 year old Scotch

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29 Ferrari F8 Tributes

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645 bottles 2017 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti

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391 bitcoin

If the cryptocurrency armored, you’d lose $ 13 million – roughly the cost of the auction house premium. $ 33,900 each as of February 1st

325 Birkin bags

Not that you can actually buy that many, but just trying could get you to the top of the line. Starts at $ 9,850 each

1,028 Rolex Datejust watches

The watch preferred by US presidents – Joe Biden wore one in steel when he was inaugurated – is also available in 18-carat white gold with diamonds. Starting at $ 16,050

1 private island

End your stroll on this 257 acre property in the lower Exuma Cays of the Bahamas. It comprises a 1,700 square meter main house, three guest houses, farm buildings and staff accommodation. $ 35 million

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