The $80m Botticelli: could its auction trigger a Covid-rescue fire sale?

If the Renaissance artist’s wavy-haired youth can fetch $80m, will collections start selling off masterpieces to get them through the pandemic? Could the RA’s Michelangelo be next?

There’s money in those Renaissance hills. The Royal Academy can sniff it. Confronted with a huge pandemic deficit that may mean sacking 150 workers, some Academicians have reportedly headed up to the cobwebby attic – or rather Norman Foster’s Sackler Galleries – to put a price on their most precious heirloom. “A hundred million pounds,” they whisper. So should the RA sell The Virgin and Child With the Infant St John – Michelangelo’s poetically unfinished marble relief and the only stone sculpture of his that Britain has – to save jobs and secure the Academy’s future?

Actually, £100m may be way too low a figure – because, as the RA has doubtless noticed, Sotheby’s has just estimated a portrait by Michelangelo’s fellow Florentine Sandro Botticelli will shortly fetch at least $80m (£63m) at auction in New York. There is clearly a huge leap in preciousness between Young Man Holding a Roundel, as Botticelli’s lovely painting is called, to a sculpture that’s not only by Michelangelo’s hand but even has his chisel marks all over it. Yes, Michelangelo’s chisel, held and hammered by him, a year or so after he finished David. Gotta be worth something.

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