The hammer fell at Christie’s New York on the evening of Wednesday November 15th. The crack of the gavel marked a historical night setting a new record for any artwork sold at auction, ever.
A guarantee was placed on the work for $100 million. Cell phones shot up to record the event when the work approached $200 million. Anxiety ran high. The audience gasped. Three bidders dropped out when it crept up to the $220 million mark, leaving the remaining two. This is how the very rich can spend.
Pitched as the “Last da Vinci” and the “male Mona Lisa,” the 26-inch Salvator Mundi, dating from 1490, is considered one of only 20 surviving paintings accepted as from the artist’s own hand.
Two and a half years earlier in this same room, Pablo Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) was sold. $179,364,992 was the premium-inclusive price. This day in May of 2015 went down in history as the largest sum ever paid for a work of art in a public sale. Picasso became the most sought after artist at auction. But last week, Leonardo kicked Picasso off his throne and set the new world record for $450,312,500 (includes buyer’s premium).
The authenticity of a mellow-looking Christ clad in blue and grasping a crystal orb is still questioned, despite leading active scholars on Leonardo who support the full authorship of this work. Christie’s stands behind it. Research on the work took six tedious years. Yet, there are a number of condition issues. The surface has been scrubbed and Christ’s face and hair extensively repainted. A 1912 photograph records how much the work has been altered.
Left: in 1904 with overpainting. Right: in 2017 after restoration. Image from Christies
The provenance is compiled primarily of recent twenty-first century sales. The remainder applied like flowers to punctuate a foliate swag which has created a chain of hypothetical claims and assumptions. Likely commissioned by King Louis XII of France and Anne of Brittany, a century and a quarter later it travels with Queen Henrietty to England when she marries King Charles I. 1763 is the last year it is recorded and disappears for 150 years. It resurfaces in the late nineteenth century in the US as part of the collection of Sir Frederick Cook.
Back in England it is put up for a Sotheby’s London auction in 1958 cataloged as a copy after Boltraffio, an artist who worked in Leonardo’s studio. There it fetched £45, bought by someone named Kuntz. Then it reappears across the pond in 2005 at a regional estate sale in Louisiana. Art dealer, Alexander Parish buys it for $10,000. It is exhibited in 2011 at London’s National Gallery’s exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan.
Parish along with some other dealers sell it to Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier in a private sale brokered by Sotheby’s for $75–80 million. A short time later, Bouvier sells it to Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev for $127.5 million. Then Rybolovlev contracts with Christie’s.
How did Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, a masterpiece rediscovered less than a decade ago, sell for more than triple the estimated amount? A heavily damaged, recently and significantly reconstructed appearance with a shady past. Christie’s put the work in its post-war and contemporary sale, rather than an old masters.
Even more astounding, an additional $30 million chunk came in the final bid. Contemporary department co-head Alex Rotter made the giant leap from $370 million to $400 million.
What does this sale say about the wider art market? $450m (with BP) goes far beyond the Picasso price in 2015. Although an outlier, $179m was still within the realm of the highest priced works of fine art paid at auction.
The Internet was the primary marketing forum for Salvator Mundi. Have marketing and branding replaced connoisseurship as the metrics of value?
Roughly 90 percent of all works sold at auction fall under $50,000.
This sale by an unidentified buyer — speculated to be a private individual — is a reflection the massive, massive, massive disproportion of wealth in the world.