After 19 minutes of dueling, with four bidders on the telephone and one in the room, Leonardo da Vinciâ€™s â€œSalvator Mundiâ€ sold on Wednesday night for $450.3 million with fees, shattering the high for any work of art sold at auction. It far surpassed Picassoâ€™s â€œWomen of Algiers,â€ which fetched $179.4 million at Christieâ€™s in May 2015. The buyer was not immediately disclosed.
There were gasps throughout the sale, as the bids climbed by tens of millions up to $225 million, by fives up to $260 million, and then by twos. As the bidding slowed, and a buyer pondered the next multi-million-dollar increment, Jussi Pylkkanen, the auctioneer, said, â€œItâ€™s an historic moment; weâ€™ll wait.â€
Toward the end, Alex Rotter, Christieâ€™s co-chairman of postwar and contemporary art, who represented a buyer on the phone, made two big jumps to shake off one last rival bid from Francis de Poortere, Christieâ€™s head of old master paintings.
The price is all the more remarkable at a time when the old masters market is contracting, because of limited supply and collectorsâ€™ penchant for contemporary art.
And to critics, the astronomical sale attests to something else â€” the degree to which salesmanship has come to drive and dominate the conversation about art and its value. Some art experts pointed to the paintingâ€™s damaged condition and its questionable authenticity.
â€œThis was a thumping epic triumph of branding and desire over connoisseurship and reality,â€ said Todd Levin, a New York art adviser.
Christieâ€™s marketing campaign was perhaps unprecedented in the art world; it was the first time the auction house went so far as to enlist an outside agency to advertise the work. Christieâ€™s also released a video that included top executives pitching the painting to Hong Kong clients as â€œthe holy grail of our businessâ€ and likening it to â€œthe discovery of a new planet.â€ Christieâ€™s called the work â€œthe Last da Vinci,â€ the only known painting by the Renaissance master still in a private collection (some 15 others are in museums).
â€œItâ€™s been a brilliant marketing campaign,â€ said Alan Hobart, director of the Pyms Gallery in London, who has acquired museum-quality artworks across a range of historical periods for the British businessman and collector Graham Kirkham. â€œThis is going to be the future.â€
Times Critic Jason Farago (speaking on behalf of the Establishment) does not like the painting or its buyer.
You canâ€™t put a price on beauty; you can put a price on a name. When the National Gallery in London exhibited a painting of Christ in 2011 as a heretofore lost work by Leonardo da Vinci, the surprise in art historical circles was exceeded only by the salivating of dealers and auctioneers.
The painting, â€œSalvator Mundi,â€ is the only Leonardo in private hands, and was brought to market by the family trust of Dmitry E. Rybolovlev, the Russian billionaire entangled in an epic multinational lawsuit with his former dealer, Yves Bouvier. On Wednesday night, at Christieâ€™s postwar and contemporary sale (in which it was incongruously included to reach bidders beyond Renaissance connoisseurs), the Leonardo sold for a shocking $450.3 million, the highest price ever paid for a work of art at auction. Worth it? Well, what are you buying: the painting or the brand?
The painting, when purchased at an estate sale in 2005 for less than $10,000, was initially considered a copy of a lost Leonardo, completed around 1500 and once in the collection of Charles I of England. Over time, its wood surface became cracked and chafed, and it had been crudely overpainted, as an image in the sale catalog shows. Cleaned by the conservator Dianne Dwyer Modestini, the painting now appears in some limbo state between its original form and an exacting, though partially imagined, rehabilitation.
Authentication is a serious but subjective business. Iâ€™m not the man to affirm or reject its attribution; it is accepted as a Leonardo by many serious scholars, though not all. I can say, however, what I felt I was looking at when I took my place among the crowds whoâ€™d queued an hour or more to behold and endlessly photograph â€œSalvator Mundiâ€: a proficient but not especially distinguished religious picture from turn-of-the-16th-century Lombardy, put through a wringer of restorations.