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Behind Every Great Man (Literally in This Case)

January 14, 2022
image of Christ with a halo of angels - Sandro Botticelli - The Man of Sorrows

Sandro Botticelli

Sandro Botticelli’s Christ portrait known as The Man of Sorrows is set to appear on the Sotheby’s auction block at the end of the month. It last came up on the market in 1963, when it sold in London for £10,000, or about £220,000 ($305,000) in today’s money. Since then, it has remained kept away in a private collection, except for a brief loan to the Städel Museum in Frankfurt in 2009. And now, at the Old Masters sale set to take place on January 27th, the Italian masterwork is predicted to reach the $40 million range.

The portrait shows Christ in a red tunic wearing the crown of thorns. He presents his hands to us, bearing the stigmata received while on the cross. This is actually the second major Botticelli work to come up at auction within a year. Last January, the Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel sold at Sotheby’s for $92.2 million. Experts like Christopher Apostle, head of Sotheby’s Old Masters department, will note that this is incredibly rare. Typically, two significant works by the same Old Master, especially one of Botticelli’s caliber, would only come up at auction once every ten years or so. There are few Botticelli works in private hands today, with Apostle estimating there to be about five in total. Specialists also have determined that Botticelli created the work around the year 1500. This makes it an even rarer specimen since it was executed during the artist’s unproductive last ten years.

But recently, Sotheby’s experts made a discovery. Infrared scans of the canvas reveal that an earlier unfinished work lay hidden underneath. We now know that an earlier Madonna and Child lays under the current painting. It’s surprising that the Sotheby’s experts were able to catch it since the signs of the earlier work are so faint. In photos featured on news sites, the specialists had to mark up the scans with the layout of the earlier figures to make them easier to see. On enhanced images, a smile and other facial features become visible. But probably the most visible part of the earlier, unfinished painting is the folds of the Madonna’s robe seen on the left sleeve of the Man of Sorrows. It is uncertain whether or not this development will lead Sotheby’s specialists to reconsider their previous $40 million estimate. But even if the estimate remains unchanged, the Baby Jesus hidden under the Man Jesus will undoubtedly attract more people to grab a paddle and maybe submit a bid.