World Coins

Italian painting in auction features collector of Roman ancients

A portrait of a collector posing with his ancient Roman coins, attributed to Italian 16th century artist Bartolomeo Passarotti, went unsold in a July auction in London

All images courtesy of Bonhams.

Portraits often include objects to help place the person depicted in context: symbols showing them in the context of the life they lived (or at least how they wanted to be viewed by their contemporaries and future generations).

Italian 16th century artist Bartolomeo Passarotti depicted a man with his proud collection in a portrait given the descriptive title, Portrait of a Collector, standing three-quarter-length, before a draped table with statues, medallions and books.

Bidders were not captured by its charms and it went unsold at its £200,000 to £300,000 estimate at Bonhams’ July 6 Old Master Paintings auction in London.

Specific attribution to an artist had eluded the picture for much of the 20th century, with it attributed to Giovanni Battista Moroni when offered at Sotheby’s in 1981 and later attributed to Passarotti when offered in 2015 by dealer Robilant + Voena in London. In a 2015 exhibition at the art trade fair Frieze Masters, they suggested that the coin held in the sitter’s hand was probably a Roman sestertius depicting Nero, while the coins on the table largely elude specific identification but for one that features an image of a Roman eagle. “Amongst the objects, some of which are fragmented, there is an expressive head of a balding man, reminiscent of a Roman philosopher,” with the dealers observing, “The sitter is undoubtedly a collector of Roman antiquities and numismatics.”

In its attribution of the unsigned painting to Passarotti, the dealers explain, “The elegant attitude of the figure who fixes his gaze upon the viewer while proudly presenting the antique coin, is a peculiarity typical of Passarotti,” who tends to adapt each portrait to the sitter. “Rather than depicting his sitter senseless and inflexible, the artist manages to put his muse in movement and action,” and the sitter presents his cultured status by surrounding himself with his collection of books, antiques and coins, “assembled with taste and patience.” As 17th century writer Count Carlo Cesare Malvasia noted on the artist, Passarotti does not “depict his sitters still and inanimate but in action and in motion, thus bringing them to life.”

Bonhams also points out that as is typical for the artist, “He has made full use of the narrative and expressive potential of the figure’s hands in the present work,” suggesting, “Given the presence of the papers on the draped table, along with three further medallions on it, perhaps the artist has portrayed his sitter in the act of cataloguing these pieces.” It is a fascinating painting with secrets that may be unlocked with further research.

David Vagi, director of ancient coins at Numismatic Guaranty Co., guesses that the unidentified person depicted might hold a sestertius, possibly intended to represent Claudius, but the clarity in the painting doesn’t allow for more specific identification.

With these renaissance portraits, viewers are asked to take in the objects that surround the sitter as his companions and inanimate expressions of the persons. Writing on a similar, earlier portrait by Lorenzo Lotto, the 1527 Portrait of Andrea Odoni, where an opulently dressed gentleman holds a sculpture, surrounded by sculpture and coins. Monika Schmitter writes in her recent book The Art Collector in Early Modern Italy that a contemporary viewer would understand how coins combine text and image, subject to careful study by collectors to discern the knowledge that they might convey. To Schmitter, coins in these paintings serve as “objects of contemplation of the past and of the divine.” Or, more broadly, ancient coins serve as relics of another era, and collecting numismatic objects “was reconfigured as a form of spiritual exercise that combined the pursuit of classical virtue with the infusion of Christian grace.”

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