top of page

The Last Botticelli


Did this $30,000,000 portrait of the Greek born poet, humanist and soldier actually sell?

Why haven't we heard about it since its hype at Frieze Masters last month?

What if I told you that it wasn't dubbed as a work by Botticelli until 1896. Furthermore, what if I also proceeded to tell you that prior to that identification it was believed to be a work by Masaccio?!

Nobody actually knows the true provenance of the portrait. The provenance offered by Trinity Fine Art is a sheer maze of information.

Firstly, it is unknown whether the portrait was painted before Marullo's untimely death, or commissioned afterwards by his widow Alessandra Scala.

Secondly, according to the catalogue by Trinity Fine Arts, the portrait is only first mentioned in 1521, without any reference to who the artist is. Shockingly, the first confirmed record of Botticelli's portrait of Marullo was an engraving made for an art dealer in 1820, Munich.

Here's where it gets confusing. According to the catalogue, the portrait was then sold as a work by the Italian artist Masaccio in 1822 with no reference to it being a portrait by Botticelli. The catalogue justifies this by stating the unpopularity of Botticelli in the early 19th century.

On forming part of the Leuchtenberg Collection, the portrait was then brought to Russia where it was placed on display in Saint Petersburg - receiving an attribution of Filippino Lippi in 1864.

Following the dispersal of the Leuchtenberg Collection, it arrived in the hands of the London based art dealer Arthur J. Sulley, who then sold it to the Berlin collector Eduard George Simon. By this stage it had been reattributed to Botticelli by art collector and historian, Fritz von Harck, in 1896.

Following so far? Well, here is where the trial ends; after Simon's death in 1929 it was acquired by the controversial Catalan politician Francesc Cambó I Batlle. Cambó then bequeathed his art collection at the time of his death to Spain, retaining this portrait of Marullo which has remained in the family but has been on a long-term loan to the Prado Museum.

According to The New York Times, the painting had a substantial amount of distinctive Botticelli aesthetic to be exhibited in "The Renaissance Portrait: From Donatello to Bellini" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011-12.

Below, in contrast, is an example of a known portrait by Sandro Botticelli at The National Gallery. When compared to The Portrait of Marullo, its extensive restoration work is obvious.

Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of a Young Man, c.1480-5, The National Gallery.

The evidence of heavy restoration to the hair has alleviated all traces of Botticelli's signature detailed locks - which are easily identified in the portrait at The National Gallery above. Prior to Frieze Masters, the work was showcased at a viewing in a London storage facility where it was subjected to ultraviolet light analysis, confirming the layers of old restoration work to both the hair and the figure's clothing.

Sandro Botticelli, Venus and Mars, 1485, The National Gallery. The expression and detail portrayed in the hair is a characteristic of Botticelli.

Furthermore, in 1864, the original egg tempura on panel was transferred onto canvas by a Russian restorer, resulting in a trimmed version of the original portrait. Carlo Orsi, the owner of Trinity Fine Art suggests that the modest asking price of $30,000,000 is due to the condition of the painting.

"Orsi says that the less than impeccable condition was reflected in the price"

- The Art Newspaper

There is yet another issue with this work. The portrait, displayed at Frieze London, was offered under a temporary export licence. This meant that if purchased by an overseas buyer, the ownership would have ultimately been subject to approval of the Spanish government. It is for this reason that the portrait could not have been sold at auction. In light of the regular selling route of authentic Old Master paintings, their usual means of purchase is through an established auction house. If it were not for the limitation of the temporary export license, "the painting might have been auctioned by Sotheby’s or Christie’s with an estimate of $50m-$60m".

There may be an explanation for the apparent haziness surrounding this portrait. The dramatic aesthetic of the Trinity Fine Art stand at Frieze captured the nature of the Art Fair wholeheartedly. Encapsulated by darkness and strategically illuminated, the portrait was concealed by a simplistic white wall, adorned only by an epigram of Marullo, and an eloquent narrative immortalising "The Last Botticelli". It could not have appealed more to our intrigue.

Ultimately, it is the big names in the art world that grasp our attention. Could the unsold "Last Botticelli" with an asking price of $30,000,000 have had the sole purpose of attracting audiences to the venue?

Photographed at Frieze. Stand A3, housing the Portrait of Marullo.

Conclusively, according to Carlo Orsi in his interview with The New York Times, housing the work which ultimately did not sell, was still a promotional opportunity for his gallery.

“People will know that I am a gallerist they can trust, someone who can have a Botticelli, a Bernini or a Pontormo.”

- Carlo Orsi in an interview with The New York Times.

Could the display of "The Last Botticelli" at Frieze Masters have merely been a PR antic? The portrait's rusty provenance, extensive restoration work and temporary export license (which could result in a long wait and potential disappointment due to Spain's right of first refusal) potentially point in this direction. As Pablo Picasso once said “Art is the lie that enables us to realise the truth.”

The chaos and the speculation are all but some of the many wonders of the art world.

bottom of page