When New York City art dealer Ira Spanierman bought an Old Masters painting for $325 at a Sotheby Park-Bernet auction in 1968, he knew he had acquired something of quality †but was not sure of exactly what. The oil on canvas was so dirty that only a bit of white fur on the sitter’s collar was visible. That and a beautifully rendered right hand convinced him to purchase the lot. Nearly 40 years later, Spanierman’s “acquisition,” now identified as “Portrait of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino” by Raphael, established not one, but two record prices paid at auction last week as it sold for $37,277,500.
The painting, sold at Christie’s London on July 6, established a record paid for the artist at auction and also an auction record for an Italian Old Master.
For Spanierman, the sale is the culmination of a journey into connoisseurship and authentication that spanned the past four decades and involved some of the world’s most renown experts.
Interviewed just hours before the Raphael was set to cross the auction block, the dealer recounted the story of the discovery.
It occurred at a routine morning sale; “Nothing remarkable, or it would have been held at night,” he said. “The painting had been skied [hung salon-style near the ceiling], but I used to climb up the ladder like a monkey with my magnifying glass and look at things way up high because I couldn’t see them properly from the ground.” The less-than-notable frame gave no clues as to what it housed, but the few details that Spanierman could make out on the canvas were enough to convince him the work was worth the estimate.
In the days and months that followed, the painting began to reveal itself. The first light cleaning showed it to be a well-known portrait of Lorenzo de’ Medici, dressed, uncharacteristically, in the French manner. A 1956 label on the back from the Walker Gallery in Liverpool offered a clue to the painter’s identity. “Attributed to Raphael,” it read.
It would take three years for the dealer to come to a conclusion; Spanierman was finally convinced that the painting was indeed the missing Raphael that had been intimately associated with the political history of the Renaissance.
Commissioned in 1518 by Raphael’s greatest patron, Pope Leo X, the painting had served as the Duke of Urbino’s introduction to Madeleine de la Tour d’Auvergne, daughter of Jean de Bourbon and niece of Francois de Bourbon, on the occasion of their betrothal, an alliance that united the ruling families of Italy and France.
Less than a year after the marriage, Catherine gave birth to Catherine de’ Medici and died shortly thereafter. A few days later, Lorenzo died from a disorder that was probably the result of his licentious follies during the trip to France. Raffaello d’Sanzio, commonly known as Raphael, died the following year, in 1520.
Remarkably, the portrait had been so well documented that even the date of its creation was known. The artist had begun to paint it on January 20, 1518. On February 10, 1518, Goro Gheri, Lorenzo’s secretary, reported that it was “finito del tutto.” Later in the century, Giorgio Vasari wrote not only of the portrait but also of its many copies.
The Medici archives document the painting’s inclusion in its collection through the inventory of 1560. And then there is a gap. “Portrait of Lorenzo de’ Medici” does not make another appearance until the Nineteenth Century, when it is included in the collection of Sir John Northwick at Thirlestaine House, Cheltenham. Between the time it resided at Thirlestaine and when it resurfaced later in the century in the Colworth collection of Hollingworth Magniac, the sitter had been misidentified as François I, and the work misattributed to Bronzino.
In 1892, the painting was included in a sale conduced by Christie, Manson and Woods featuring the Colworth collection. In the accompanying catalog, J.C. Robinson, the era’s most perceptive scholar of Italian Renaissance painting, reidentified the painting as that of Lorenzo de’ Medici and reattributed the painting to Raphael. This opinion was supported by Sir Charles Eastlake.
Years passed before the painting went on view again. In 1908, it was shown at the Royal Academy in London.
Of course, by the time Spanierman won his canvas, no one remembered.
Faced with inconclusive evidence regarding attribution, and with known copies hanging in several museums, Spanierman took the next logical step. “I called in the experts,” he said. Everett Fahy of the Metropolitan Museum, John Pope-Hennessy, noted Raphael scholar, and Konrad Oberhuber of the Albertina were all “very pro the painting.”
Infrared analysis revealed that the artist made numerous revisions, as would be typical of a creative process that was pressured and rushed. Since no studies for the work exist, the occurrence of pentimento further appeared to fit. Also, the original was known to have been painted on canvas. Spanierman’s “Lorenzo” was a work on canvas.
In 1971, Oberhuber conclusively reestablished the position of the painting in Raphael’s oeuvre in an article in The Burlington Magazine.
With the “case solved,” the owner then made a masterful choice. He decided to keep Raphael’s “Portrait of Lorenzo de’ Medici” off the market. When asked why, he jokingly replied, “I wanted to be the only guy on the block with a Raphael.”
Over the years, Spanierman has politely entertained lavish offers from museum directors and collectors. A representative of the Louvre went as far as to declare it a “French national treasure.”
“After holding the painting for 39 years,” the ever-dapper dealer mused, “the end of my story has to somehow be the sale of the Raphael.” Asked if the end of the story is the beginning of his retirement, Spanierman said it is unlikely.
Moments after “Portrait of Lorenzo de’ Medici” sold, handily exceeding its $30 million high estimate, Spanierman proclaimed, perhaps slightly tongue in cheek, “Somebody got an incredible bargain.”