Getty Passes on a Botticelli, Again
In November Getty painting curator Davide Gasparatto posted the Botticelli to his Instagram account, sparking discussion with several noted museum people and connoisseurs. One asked the obvious question: "So will the Getty be the lucky purchaser?" Gasparatto had no comment.
The Getty already had a history with the portrait. Up until 1982 the Botticelli was owned by the family of Oxford physicist Thomas Merton. The family wanted to sell but had been advised to wait until the J. Paul Getty estate was settled. That would surely bring a high bid from the wealthy but art-poor American museum. Getty curator Burton Fredericksen pitched Young Man with a Roundel to the trustees. "Unfortunately," Fredericksen wrote in his memoir Burdens of Wealth, "Everett Fahy, director of the Frick Collection in New York, felt the painting was by Francesco Botticini, a follower of Botticelli, rather than Botticelli himself. I was certain he was wrong, and [art historian Federico] Zeri agreed, though not very forcefully; [Getty advisor Otto] Wittmann had no opinion at all. Of course, [Getty Trust director Harold] Williams could not be expected to know the difference between Botticelli and Botticini, nor could he readily determine who was correct about the attribution, so… he rejected the proposal."
The night before the sale, Brian Sewell, a former Christie's adviser, did a TV interview in which he seconded the theory that it was Botticini too. Sewell was apparently aggrieved that he'd been passed over for a spot on Christie's board.
The Getty didn't bid, and the auction house sold the painting to New York real estate developer Sheldon Solow for a rock-bottom £810,000 (about $3.9 million in today's U.S. dollars). Fahy, who moved to the Met, later decided the portrait was by Botticelli after all. It was on loan to the Met, as a Botticelli, from 2013 to 2020.
Merton's granddaughter Suzy Lewis told the Art Newspaper that the disappointing 1982 sale has cast a shadow on the the family's fortunes, even to this day. She says they have to "scrimp and save, with Airbnb."