Sotheby's will headline its London Old Master evening sale on 7 December with a painting that it describes as the "most important" work by Titian to come to auction this century, according to an official release. It is attributed to "Titian and workshop" in the catalogue notes, although throughout the press release, the work is referred to as by Titian alone.
Carrying an estimate of £8m-£12m, Venus and Adonis (around 1555-57) depicts the two titular mythological figures. It is related to Titian's poesie [poem] series—six large paintings commissioned by King Philip II of Spain and executed between 1554 and 1562, which were inspired by stories taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and other classical works. A number of versions of each of the poesies exist, painted to varying degrees by Titian and his workshop. TheVenus and Adonis commissioned by King Philip—attributed fully to Titian by the Prado—dates to 1554. This is generally agreed among scholars to be the work's earliest existing version and the finest in quality, although these claims have long been debated by scholars. Other versions hang in the National Gallery in London and the National Gallery in Washington, DC.
Sotheby's painting last appeared on the open market in 1998 when it failed to sell at Christie's London. At that time it carried a considerably lower estimate of £1m-£1.5m. It had been consigned by the collector Patrick de Charmant, who died in 2010. One of his family members has now consigned the work to Sotheby's.
The painting is normally held in Lausanne, Switzerland, leading some academics to refer to it as the "Lausanne version". Among its former owners are Prince Eugene of Savoy, who displayed it in the Upper Belvedere in Vienna following the palace's completion in 1723. It is currently on display in Sotheby's London headquarters, having entered the UK on temporary admission. It will also be shown at the auction house's locations in New York and Hong Kong in November.
According to Sotheby's co-chairman of Old Master paintings George Gordon, this painting's estimate was "partly influenced" by the 1991 sale of another version of Venus and Adonis, attributed to Titian and his workshop and held by the Getty Museum since 1992. It was bought for £7.4m at Christie's London by the London gallery Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox in partnership with Herman Shickman, a dealer based in London and New York. Its consignor was the second Earl of Normanton, whose family had bought the painting in 1844.
Compared to other existing Venus and Adonis paintings attributed to Titian (and his workshop), the Sotheby's version has rarely been publicly displayed, and so “largely overlooked in the extensive literature on the artist”, according to a press release. This all changed after technical examination of the painting in 2015. In 2017, the art historian Thomas Dalla Costa curated the 2017 show Renaissance Venice: Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, at the Pushkin State Museum in Moscow. He then published the book “Venere e Adone” di Tiziano: arte, cultura e società tra Venezia e l’Europa [Venus and Adonis by Titian: art, culture and society between Venice and Europe] in 2019 that provided "clear evidence of the artist’s hand". Dalla Costa also contributed to a 2021 show at the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna, where the Sotheby's painting was labelled as a Titian "without qualification". It was here that Gordon first saw the painting.
But Charles Hope, the former director of the Warburg Institute in London and a leading Titian expert, says that he suspects "that Titian himself had little or nothing" to do with the production of most versions of the Venus and Adonis paintings. "Why would the most famous painter of his day, at the height of his success, waste his time on painting the same picture again and again? He seems to have had competent assistants to do that kind of work."
Hope adds that this view is in line with Sotheby's estimate, "which is unrealistically low for an autograph Titian of that size and that period".
Sotheby's states in the press release that "Titian, like nearly all his contemporaries, led a workshop to assist him with his commissions. Today, scholars continue to debate the degree of involvement such great artists had in individual works."
Hope also questions "how much appetite" from institutions there will be for this work considering how many museums already hold a version. Nonetheless, should it achieve its low estimate it will become the second-most expensive work by Titian at auction. The artist's record stands at $16.9m for A Sacra Conversazione (around 1560), which sold at Sotheby's New York in 2011.