A late Botticelli and a portrait of Princess Diana give the art market a much-needed shot in the arm

Sotheby's Old Master sales in New York proved buoyant with The Man of Sorrows proving to be the crowning glory

The Man of Sorrows (detail) Credit: Sandro Botticelli

Sotheby’s staged a series of Old Master sales in New York last week that brought an anticipated $109 million (£82 million), providing a shot in the arm for the market. Its main sale brought $91 million (£68 million), compared to London’s more pedestrian £19 million equivalent sale in December. 

The star lot, a portrait of a thorn-crowned Christ by Botticelli dating from around 1500, was bought by the vendor for £10,000 in the 1960s when it was thought to be a joint effort by Botticelli and his workshop. But The Man of Sorrows has since been given “fully autographed” status by scholars – in other words, a work by Botticelli alone. Although the painting did not attract much competition, possibly because it was a late, religious work, it still sold for $45 million (£33.5 million), realising a healthy compound interest growth of 14.8 per cent per annum for the seller. 

Not far behind would have been the 10.4 per cent per annum increase the British Rail Pension Fund could have made on an ancient Egyptian limestone sculpture which they bought in 1978 for $280,000. Last week, it sold for $9.9 million (£7.4 million), the second highest price for an Egyptian work of art. But sadly for the Pension Fund, the clever winner was the American collector who bought it from them for about $300,000 in the 1990s and resold it last week. 

Portrait study: Diana, Princess of Wales Credit: Nelson Shanks/Estate of Nelson Shanks

The surprise of the week was the inclusion of a 1994 portrait study of Diana, Princess of Wales, by Nelson Shanks, an American artist who died in 2015 and whose collection of Baroque paintings were being sold. His own paintings have never sold for more than $16,000 and this, a study for a full-length painting that once hung in Kensington Palace, but is now at Althorp in Northamptonshire, Diana’s childhood home, was estimated at $15,000. After she had finished sitting for the portrait, and 

Shanks had returned to America, she wrote to him: “I do miss you and Leona in London, as coming to the Studio was a safe haven, so full of support and love.” 

Bidders were clearly enthused by the emotive tenor of the painting and drove the price to just over $200,000 (£149,000).

Britain’s provincial auctioneers had a good year in 2021 in spite of the restrictions of the pandemic, according to the Antiques Trade Gazette. Dreweatts, which holds auctions in London and Newbury, came top with sales of £27.7 million. Second was Edinburgh-based Lyon & Turnbull which hit a record £21 million, just ahead of Woolley & Wallis in Salisbury with £20.5 million.