It is hard not to have noticed the eye watering sum Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci, which reached Christie’s New York Post War and Contemporary sale on 21st November 2017. With the result splashed over most social and media outlets, the much debated work sold to an undisclosed buyer who paid $450.3 million to shatter all auction records.
Until this night, the highest price paid for an artwork was the privately negotiated deal of $300 million for a William de Kooning, Interchange. With both artworks sitting at opposite ends of the art historical spectrum, it is interesting the see the Renaissance commercially outweighing the Contemporary. A contemporary piece reaching astronomical sums is old news. An Old Master causing a monetary sensation, this is new! Was this marketing ploy aimed at trophy hunters rather than traditional collectors if so, was it not an “obscene display of conspicuous consumption?”
There is much debate on whether the result of the sale was down to the spectacular presentation to the public or was it really because it was the last Leonardo in private hands? Thomas Campbell former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art said, that the price was “eye-popping, it should come as no surprise in a market where speculation, marketing and branding have displaced connoisseurship as the metrics of value”. In some eyes, Christie’s decision to catapult the Last da Vinci into the contemporary market has portrayed their lack of faith in the Old Masters market, others believe this is the attention the Old Master market needs to compete with the millions in contemporary art’s corner.
The extraordinary find was down to Loic Gouzer, something of a celebrity at Christie’s. At 15 minutes, three tenacious bidders remained, represented at the phone banks by Alex Rotter, Christie’s co-chairman; François de Poortere, head of Old Masters; and Loic Gouzer, co-chairman of Post-War and Contemporary Art. Onlookers were shocked at how ferocious the bidding was.
The painting belonged to the fertiliser tycoon, president of Monaco Football club and Russian collector; Dmitry Rybolovlev, who purchased the work through his Swiss dealer Yves Bouvier. This sale alone has created mass controversy as Bouvier purchased the work from Sothebys in 2013 for $75.million with the intention for Ryboloylev to add to his collection. However he sold the work onto Ryboloylev for $127.5 million making a hefty commission along the way. This conjured up a legal dispute between the pair which now seems hardly viable in light of the recent Christie’s result.
Further dispute on the conservation of the work which took place in 2005 caused issues around authenticity and condition. Yes the work was in the da Vinci exhibition at the National Gallery in 2011-12 which would normally be validation alone. However with the skimming and overpainting of the original work, there were rumours that the work was more contemporary painting than Renaissance even though the work was painted over 500 years ago, this explains the necessity to portray it as a mass media presence– hence its position in the Post War and Contemporary sale.
1958 £45 at Sotheybs
Given the mythical standing of da Vinci it is hard to dispute that there wasn’t already a venerate perception from the public. But the controversy surrounding the restoration of the work back in 2015 had created All this aside, it is hard not to see that with all Leonardo’s now in public hands, this was a special opportunity for one incredibly wealthy buyer.
The bidding war came down to two bidders who pitted against one another for 8 minutes until the winner came through via Alex Rotter
“In case of the Leonardo, it is so rare and iconic that you would need a crystal ball to guess its final price.” Gorvey
The competition to secure ‘Salvator Mundi’ ultimately came down to just two bidders pitted against each other to win the ultimate art trophy. Waiting in the wings was the third party guarantor, another anonymous presence who will have profited substantially from their decision taken to offer a baseline $100 million for ‘Salvator Mundi’.
The figure of $100 million was also the Christie’s estimate which is often taken as the benchmark for setting guarantees. Yet the fact this Leonardo made more than four times the estimate will raise some eyebrows.
Given the mythical standing of Leonardo himself plus the mystical nature of the subject matter and the quasi-religiose way that the auction house presented ‘Salvator Mundi’, it seems with the benefit of hindsight likely that the work would rocket past its estimate.
The identity of the purchaser is closely-guarded secret. The question remains as to whether or not the new owner will exhibit ‘Salvator Mundi’ for public worship or keep it as an object of private veneration. It would be a crying shame for such a work to disappear behind closed doors.
With a diminishing supply of top-quality works and the collapse of the lower, decorative end of the market, the Old Master world has also become “smaller and more focused”, Smith adds. That contraction has contributed to more business collaborations, such as the Colnaghi and Coll & Cortés partnership. Agnew’s has also just announced it will work with New York-based Ambrose Naumann (son of Otto Naumann, who is stepping aside and selling part of his own collection at Sotheby’s New York in January) on joint exhibitions under the banner of Agnew’s Naumann. “It just makes more sense to work together,” Crichton-Stuart says. The future is one of a smaller but more experimental and collaborative market. As one gallery director says: “There are only a handful of really big collectors, and we can’t all ring them every week.”