Sotheby’s Dubai has opened its exhibit of Sandro Botticelli’s The Man of Sorrows, a rare example of the artist’s later work. The painting is expected to sell at an estimated excess of $40 million at Sotheby’s Old Masters sale in New York in January, and it’s on view in Dubai until Tuesday.
The brooding portrait of the resurrected Christ was executed in the late 15th or early 16th centuries – the last decade of the artist’s life. For Christopher Apostle, head of Old Master Paintings at Sotheby’s New York, the work presents an unusual moment in the artist’s oeuvre.
“Botticelli becomes quite a different painter: more introspective, mystical and metaphysical,” he tells The National after the painting’s unveiling at DIFC on Sunday. “It’s a shift from the polished world of the Primavera or The Birth of Venus, to this much more ponderous look at humanity.”
Some of that has to do with the artist’s ageing. “He started looking at his own mortality. There’s a fragile tone in this picture,” Apostle says. He may have also been reacting to the competition that emerged from younger artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. “He was feeling competitive, but also reacting while being inspired.”
The painting’s mystical quality is also connected to the major changes underpinning Florence at the time of its execution. By 1494, the Medici family had been expelled and the city was invaded by foreign armies. The charismatic Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola – a known influence on Botticelli’s later work – fuelled fears of an apocalypse, demanding that citizens purge themselves of sin. “Florentine art was revolutionised culturally and socially,” says Apostle.
Works by Botticelli remain exceedingly rare at auction. The Man of Sorrows has been owned by the same family since 1963, where it remained practically unseen. It was included in a monographic exhibition at the Stadel Museum in Frankfurt in 2009-2010.
Yet, this is the second major Botticelli to come up at auction within a year. In January this year, Sotheby’s sold Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man holding a Roundel at the record-breaking price of $92.2 million.
“It’s the bizarre part of working at an auction house,” says Apostle, who joined Sotheby’s in 1988. “I would have never expected to have two Botticellis in a row. He’s a pretty rare artist, with a few major works only coming up once every 10 years.”
But unlike The Man of Sorrows, those that do make it to the auction houses, Apostle says, are from earlier periods of the artist’s life. “They have always been more or less his classic period, his golden age.”
Few Botticelli paintings remain in private hands. “We think that less than five could come on to the market,” says Apostle. Of these, three works are from the last two decades of the artist’s life, according to the auction house. “But you never know. In my years at Sotheby’s, things have come to the market that I never thought would.”
As for the timing of the sale – so close to the earlier landmark sale – Apostle puts this down to coincidence. “This is the joy of working at an auction house,” he says, also noting that discussions about the sale of the work had begun before the pandemic.
Apostle believes the work could appeal beyond the traditional audience for Old Master paintings. “So much rests on the impact and presence of a work of art. When I first saw the painting, it immediately occurred to me that this was a crossover picture.
“It has a power and an ‘in your face quality’ which I could see hanging next to a great contemporary work of art.”
The appetite for Old Master paintings in the Middle East region, he says, is growing. “We’ve seen a 40 per cent increase in engagement with Old Masters in the region in the last few years. We do see a lot of young collectors. A lot of Old Masters are at a price point where the quality that you’re buying is so high, and relatively inexpensive compared to other categories.”
Yet the estimate in excess of $40m for this painting far outweighs the prices in a typical Old Masters sale. The Sotheby’s December sale in London fetched £18.9m ($25m).
The Man of Sorrows has been exhibited in Hong Kong, London, Los Angeles and now Dubai, before returning to New York in time for the sale.
In Dubai, the work was unveiled by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan and Zaki Nusseibeh, cultural adviser to the president. “Once again, the event reflects the unique position of the United Arab Emirates as a global platform for the fine arts in its 50th anniversary year,” said Nusseibeh, at the unveiling.
“With the presence of its grand museums, its vibrant art scene, its focus as a collector’s venue, and this year’s Expo 2020 Dubai with its 194 national pavilions, Sotheby’s makes the right choice in unveiling to the world its very best in art history in the UAE.”