The world’s top-selling Madonna paintings


Today our fortnightly Top-10 auction ranking takes a look at the world’s best-ever auction results for Madonnas…

Like all markets, the art market is mainly a question of supply and demand.In the case of Madonnas – a religious subject essentially depicted by Old Masters and subsequently side-lined in the Modern and Contemporary periods – demand is pretty thin. The subject has become unfashionable and only attracts a small number of savvy low-profile collectors. With few buyers chasing these works, classic Madonnas by some of Art History’s greatest painters hit the market at much lower prices than most people would imagine. Art buyers are much more interested in a portrait by Picasso than the acquisition of a Madonna, even when signed by exceptional artists like Titian or Botticelli.

Todays’ ranking – the Top 10 auction results for representations of the Virgin Mary – includes works by Titian, Bartolomeo DELLA PORTA, Sandro BOTTICELLI, Lucas I CRANACH or Domenico ZAMPIERI (aka Domenichino). These are some of the most illustrious painters of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Naturally, excellence has a price and all ten works in this Top have generated multi-million dollar results. However, considering the historical importance of the artists in this ranking, the total secondary market value of these works ($98.4 million) seems modest… to say the least.

Rank Artist Hammer Price ($) Artwork Sale
1 TIZIANO VECELLIO (1485/89-1576) 16 743 245 A Sacra Conversazione 27/01/2011 Sotheby’s New York NY
2 Bartolomeo DELLA PORTA (1472-1517) 16 140 661 The Madonna and Child 30/01/2013 Christie’s New York NY
3 Nicolaj Konstantinov ROERICH (1874-1947) 12 094 109 Madonna Laboris 05/06/2013 Bonhams Londres
4 Sandro BOTTICELLI (c.1445-1510) 10 442 500 The Rockefeller Madonna 30/01/2013 Christie’s New York NY
5 Giovanni RIMINI DA (act.c.1292-c.1336) 9 732 986 Left Wing of a Diptych with Episodes From the Lives of the Virgin and Other Saints… 09/07/2014 Sotheby’s Londres
6 Hugo VAN DER GOES (Attrib.) (c.1420-1482) 8 983 500 The Virgin and Child with Saints Thomas… 27/04/2017 Christie’s New York NY
7 Sandro BOTTICELLI (c.1445-1510) 7 518 665 The Madonna and Child, with a Pomegranate… 07/12/2006 Christie’s Londres
8 Jan Mabuse GOSSAERT (c.1478-1532) 6 996 734 The Virgin and Child 09/12/2015 Sotheby’s Londres
9 Lucas I CRANACH (1472-1553) 6 743 245 The Feilitzsch Altarpiece 04/07/2012 Sotheby’s Londres
10 Domenico ZAMPIERI (1581-1641) 6 140 661 The Pieta 05/07/2007 Christie’s Londres
copyright © 2018

Eight years ago, Picasso’s Marie-Thérèse Walter in Nude, Green Leaves and Bust) fetched $106 million at Christie’s. That figure more than covers the total acquisition cost of the 10 Madonnas in this Top, which – had they been acquired by a single collector – would constitute a uniquely prestigious collection. In the context of an art market that regularly generates new records above $50 million, the financial value of the works listed below may well be significantly below their true artistic value.

A remarkable Titian… cheaper than a Richter

In 2011, Sotheby’s New York generated just under $17 million for an exceptional Madonna and Child painting (170 cm wide) by Titian, considered the best Venetian painter of the 16th century. The top price in this ranking, it was also the highest amount ever paid at an auction for a work by Titian; but in a broader art market context, that record looks meagre: for example in 2017 alone, no fewer than 72 artworks fetched higher prices.

The Virgin represented in A Sacra Conversazione, Madonna and Child (Top 1) is unquestionably of museum quality. Titian portrays a strong and realistic woman, a solid figure draped in red and blue, a caring mother supporting her child in a slightly vulnerable position with her arms outstretched towards Catherine of Alexandria. Although the main subject of this painting is the conversion of the beautiful Catherine, the strong figure of the Virgin Mary overshadows the new convert. The work was undoubtedly the most important Titian canvas offered for public sale in 30 years. And yet this unique canvas generated several million less than a good painting by Peter Doig or Gerhard Richter, (to give just two examples among a multitude of artists whose work is still “ongoing”). Despite being one of the most famous artists in history, Titian interests fewer buyers than the most emblematic artists on the Contemporary art market.

Recently, on 1 February 2018, Sotheby’s in New York offered an impressive 2-metre tall Titian canvas, Saint Margaret. Considering only two or three works by Titian are auctioned each year worldwide, it represented a rare opportunity. The work fetched a ‘satisfactory’ result of just $2.1 million, although Sotheby’s was hoping for a million more in view of the high quality of the work. A few days later, Sotheby’s announced the sale of a portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter by Pablo Picasso for around $50 million. At its sale, after a major marketing and media campaign targeting potential bidders, the portrait generously exceeded the upon-request estimate, reaching $68.7 million. In short… compared with the Picasso effect, the effects of rarity and legacy prestige are not strong enough to put Titian on anywhere near the same price level.

Nevertheless, aside from these considerations, the highly specific market for Madonnas is not devoid of vitality. All the results in this Top 10 were hammered in the last decade, suggesting a relatively buoyant record-renewal momentum. It may be a tiny sub-segment, but it attracts energetic demand. Old Master enthusiasts are attentive to a market that constantly hatches new surprises. Unexpected works find their way onto auction podiums every year. In parallel to the auction market, dealers and collectors often prefer private transactions for reasons of confidentiality, especially in March, when the masterpieces are concentrated at the TEFAF in Maastricht (9-18 March 2018).