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Sotheby’s New York “My Friend, Fernando Botero” Sale

March 6, 2024
A still-life painting of a bowl of flowers

Florero by Fernando Botero

There might be an inverse correlation between the number of lots in a sale and the estimated average value for each painting. And Sotheby’s New York on Friday proved that hypothesis with their very short sale showcasing the Salomón and Rosita Lerner collection. Salomón Lerner founded Librería Lerner, a bookstore that became one of the most significant cultural hubs in Bogotá, Colombia. He and his wife Rosita became close friends with and patrons of the great twentieth-century Colombian master painter Fernando Botero, whose work comprised all but one of the twelve lots featured during the afternoon sale at Sotheby’s. Fernando Botero passed away last September at the age of 91. While he is often remembered as the guy who painted fat people, there is so much more to his work than meets the eye. Botero sought to explore the “sensuality of form” by exaggerating the size and shape of living beings and inanimate objects. He applied this technique to portraits of prominent figures like politicians to satirize them. He also extended this to scenes of Colombian domestic life, still lifes, and landscapes. However, one of the unifying themes of Lerner’s collection of Botero’s work is how the Old Masters frequently influenced his work.

The sale’s top lot was a painting from 1974 known as Florero, or Vase. Sotheby’s specialists described the work as “a triumph of the volumetric distortion and precise execution that defines Boterismo.” Works by the Old Master artists exerted an incredible amount of influence on Botero during his artistic studies. This influence manifests itself here in the form of a floral still-life painting. Florero no doubt draws upon the tradition of flower paintings that reached its peak among Dutch painters during the seventeenth century. The canvas is absolutely massive, measuring 89 by 75 1⁄4 inches, adding another dimension to the artist’s exaggeration of size. Florero was estimated to sell for anywhere between $1 million and $1.5 million, with the hammer coming down at $2.2 million (or $2.72 million w/p). 

A painting showing a suited man and a nude woman playing cards

Jugando a las cartas by Fernando Botero

Moving on from still-life, next was a domestic scene called Jugando a las cartas, or Playing Cards. Again, Sotheby’s specialists drew links back to Old Master paintings and even works by the nineteenth-century modernists. Groups of people playing cards have been a popular subject in Western art for centuries, with the cheaters seen in works by Caravaggio. Furthermore, the small figure in the servant’s outfit with a tray of drinks evokes Velazquez’s portraits, including the Spanish court dwarves. The small servant, as well as the door with the key and its lock, suggests that this is taking place in some private room, part of a larger casino or restaurant. Sotheby’s specialists predicted Jugando a las cartas to sell for between $1 million and $1.5 million, selling for slightly above estimate at $1.85 million (or $2.3 million w/p).

A painting of a woman standing in front of a wall of paintings.

La coleccionista by Fernando Botero

Lastly, in third place was Botero’s 1974 painting La coleccionista. Again, following the recurring theme of Old Master influence, Botero draws upon a common painting genre between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. These paintings show the interior of a museum, private collection, or artist’s workshop, with paintings decorating the walls. In Botero’s rendition, we see a conservatively dressed woman standing before a wall of paintings, likewise in Botero’s style. These paintings range from still life to landscapes to portraits and others. La coleccionista hit the high end of its estimate range, selling for $600K (or $762,000 w/p).

There weren’t many surprises during the sale since only twelve lots were available. The only lot that qualifies was Botero’s En la arena, a 1986 painting of a trio of matadors mingling with each other before or after a bullfight. Botero was sent by his uncle to a bullfighting school at the age of twelve, making him very familiar with the manners and lives of matadors. Sotheby’s specialists gave the painting a relatively low estimate, expecting it to sell for no more than $200K. However, it ended up selling for more than double at $420K (or $533.4K w/p). Of the twelve available lots, three sold within their estimate ranges, giving Sotheby’s specialists an accuracy rate of 27%. Most of the lots, seven in total (64%), sold above estimate. Meanwhile, the only painting not by Botero, a still-life by the Chilean hyperrealist painter Claudio Bravo, is the only lot that was bought in. The entire sale was predicted to bring in no more than $6.11 million. Since close to two-thirds of the lots sold above estimate, the sale surpassed this number. The final total eventually came to $7.27 million (or $9.1 million w/p).