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If you have US$30m, you could have a Botticelli
[LONDON] Sandro Botticelli, who died five centuries ago, is best known for his Spring and Birth of Venus paintings, which help draw more than two million visitors a year to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. His works are not generally expected to be found outside the world's major museums.
Yet a portrait painted by the Renaissance master has just cropped up on the international art market. With an asking price of US$30 million, it is set to be the lone work at the booth of Trinity Fine Art, a London-based gallery, at this year's Frieze Masters fair from Thursday to Sunday.
The portrait, Michele Marullo Tarchaniota (circa 1497), shows a dark-haired man dressed in black who casts a sideways glance at the viewer. Marullo was a soldier and poet of Greek origin who was close to the Medici dynasty of bankers and arts patrons — and was celebrated and admired in late 15th-century Florence. He drowned while crossing a river after visiting a fellow scholar.
No one knows for sure how his portrait came about: whether Botticelli painted it during Marullo's lifetime or whether it was posthumously commissioned by his widow, Alessandra Scala. Yet it is distinctive enough to have been included in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's 2011-12 exhibition The Renaissance Portrait: From Donatello to Bellini.
"We wanted it because it is, quite simply, a marvelous picture — despite the fact that it has not come down to us in the ideal kind of condition one would hope," Keith Christiansen, chairman of the European paintings department at the Met, wrote in an email.
"Botticelli gives us a truly psychological portrait of one of the most fascinating humanists of the 15th century."
The portrait also provides "a different sense" of the work of Botticelli, who is more commonly known as a painter of female figures or of "mystic, Dante-esque visions", Mr Christiansen added.
Painted with egg tempera on a wooden panel, the Marullo portrait was transferred to canvas in 1864, according to the Met catalogue, and made smaller: About 2.75 inches were trimmed from either side of it, leaving a slightly slimmer version of Botticelli's original composition.
A few weeks before the Frieze Masters opening, Trinity Fine Art organised a viewing of the painting in a London storage facility. Ultraviolet light revealed that parts of the subject's hair and clothing had undergone restoration.
The list of the portrait's prior owners is a who's who of European royalty. It was once the property of Auguste de Beauharnais, whose father was the stepson of Napoleon. The portrait later entered the collections of the son-in-law of Czar Nicholas I of Russia.
About a century ago, it was bought by prominent Catalan politician and arts patron Francesc Cambó i Batlle. The family has owned the portrait ever since. It was recently on long-term loan to the Prado Museum in Madrid.
Italian gallerist Carlo Orsi, owner of Trinity Fine Art, said he was approached by a member of the family a year or so ago and asked about the possibility of selling the work. There were 14 heirs, he was told, and it was impossible to slice up the painting into equal parts.
Mr Orsi works with prominent family collections in Italy. He recently showed a bronze bust of Pope Urban VIII by Bernini at the Florence International Biennial Antiques Fair. Previously, he sold Pontormo's Portrait of a Gentleman With a Book to businessman and collector Francesco Federico Cerruti, who died in 2015 and bequeathed his collection to the Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art in Turin, Italy.
The Botticelli was an offer Mr Orsi could not refuse. "I thought to myself, 'When will I ever be handling another Botticelli?'," he said. "This kind of opportunity comes up only once in your life."
The gallerist said he initially considered showing the painting alongside other works at his booth at the European Fine Art Fair, or TEFAF, in Maastricht, the Netherlands. He soon realised that it would draw all the attention and prevent him from finding buyers for any of the other objects he had for sale.
That was when he decided on Frieze Masters, a fair with a strong focus on modern art, where the Botticelli was sure to stand out. And he decided to dedicate an entire booth to the portrait.
While Mr Orsi said he had received expressions of interest in the Botticelli portrait, there's no telling whether the Frieze Masters stand will lead to an actual purchase — especially because of an added complication.
While the work has a temporary export licence from the Spanish government, it does not have a permanent one, Mr Orsi said. If someone decides to buy it, Spain has the right of first refusal. The buyer will have to wait months to see whether Spain can raise money to acquire the painting.
What if it does not sell? Mr Orsi said it would still work out to be a good promotional opportunity for his gallery.
"People will know that I am a gallerist they can trust," he explained, "someone who can have a Botticelli, a Bernini or a Pontormo".