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Moment that mattered: Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi sells for a record $450 million

A Christie’s staff member holds Salvator Mundi, which sold for $450 million on 15th November 2017. Photo: Ray Tang / Zuma Press / PA Images

An extraordinary auction took place at Christie’s in New York on 15th November 2017. Salvator Mundi, one of the few surviving Leonardo da Vinci paintings and the only one not in a museum collection, sold for $450 million, the highest price ever paid for a work of art at auction.

“I was astonished,” says Georgina Adam, whose book Dark Side of the Boom explores the negative impact of the rapid growth of the high-end art market. “I think everyone was, to tell you the truth. 
I didn’t stay up to watch [the livestream of the auction] because it was the middle of the night in the UK and I wasn’t expecting such a high price. When I checked the price in the morning I nearly choked on my cornflakes.”

On the eve of the auction CNN reported that the painting was “expected to fetch about $100 million”. In fact, an undisclosed third party had already agreed to purchase the Renaissance polymath’s painting of Christ at $100 million if the auction failed to reach such heights. But the price certainly wasn’t expected to exceed the world record for a painting: $179.4m, which was paid in May 2015 for Pablo Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger. The Christie’s auctioneer on that night predicted the new record would last a decade. It was obliterated in less than three years.

I think everyone would agree that its condition is not great”

Establishing a fair price for Salvator Mundi was always going to be controversial. Firstly, there is the matter of its physical state. “Part of the reason everyone was astonished about the price of the artwork was because shortly before the sale there had been a little bit of a rumpus about its condition,” recalls Adam.

The well-travelled painting, believed to be over 500 years old, has required extensive restoration work; New York-based conservator Dianne Dwyer Modestini says she spent hundreds of hours taking the cracked painting apart after it was rediscovered in 2005, piecing it together again and retouching damaged areas. After November’s bumper sale, Thomas Campbell, the former director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, posted an image of the badly damaged pre-restoration painting on Instagram with the caption “450 million dollars?! Hope the buyer understands conservation issues.”

Adam says that the work’s history and condition would have been factored into the price consideration. “It’s been repainted, it’s been heavily restored, and some parts of it are better preserved than others. I think everyone would agree that its condition is not great,” she says.

Then there’s the question of Salvator Mundi’s authenticity, with some observers suggesting that Giovanni Boltraffio, a pupil in da Vinci’s studio, may have been its real creator. Ahead of the auction, Christie’s pointed to “more than six years of research and inquiry to document its authenticity” and Adam is inclined to agree with their findings that the painting is by da Vinci. “The body of scholarly opinion is that it was by Leonardo and since I’m not a Leonardo expert all I can do is listen to the voices,” she says.

Photo: Denniv van Tine / UPI / PA Images

Christie’s initially refused to reveal the identity of the deep-pocketed buyer. Various Chinese billionaires, Bill Gates and Vladimir Putin were spun out by the rumour mill. But the secret didn’t last long. On 7th December, the New York Times obtained documents linking the sale to a little-known Saudi royal believed to be an intermediary for Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. A day later, Christie’s said that Abu Dhabi’s department of culture and tourism had acquired the painting, which will go on display in the emirate’s new Louvre museum.

“At first Abu Dhabi said they’d acquired it, which doesn’t necessarily mean they bought it,” says Adam. “They subsequently said they bought it, which was possibly a face-saving exercise. It’s conceivable that bin Salman was criticised by the Saudi religious authorities for buying a Christian image and so he gave it to Abu Dhabi. But that’s just me theorising.”

I think it’s rather sad that this art is hidden away. I don’t think these artists made these things to be sitting in a crate”

Adam believes it’s a good thing that unlike many high-profile paintings Salvator Mundi will be on public display. For her book she extensively researched freeports, secure warehouses in tax-free zones at airports where many high-priced works, typically those purchased principally for investment purposes, sit unseen by anyone, often for years at a time. “Art storage is a huge industry,” she says. “If you buy art as an investment you don’t want it on your mantelpiece, you want it somewhere safe where it won’t get damaged. I think it’s rather sad that this art is hidden away. I don’t think these artists made these things to be sitting in a crate.”

Adam also believes that, on the whole, the sale of Salvator Mundi is good news for the global art market. “The fact that such huge prices can be achieved stimulates vendors to put their stuff up for sale,” she says. But she also has some reservations. “It stimulates the art-as-investment market. There will be more people thinking, ‘If you can make those sort of profits let’s buy more art and stick it into a freeport.’”

It’s unlikely, however, that anybody investing in art in the future will stumble upon a one-off bargain like Salvator Mundi, as New York collector Alexander Parish did in 2005 when he paid $10,000 for it at a small auction. He sold it in 2013 for around $75 million to Yves Bouvier, who sold it to Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev for $127.5 million a few months later.

Adam believes that it’s unlikely that any other painting will fetch anything close to $450 million at auction any time soon. “It all depends on the supply,” she says. “I can’t think of anything beating it unless somebody comes up with a great Michelangelo or another Leonardo, but these things are all in museums and they would never sell their top masterpieces. That’s selling the cow rather than the milk; they need people to visit. I think this record will hold for some time.


We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #29 of Delayed Gratification

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