Leonardo Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi is now the most expensive painting ever after being sold for $450m at Christie’s last week. The painting, which depicts Jesus holding a glass orb in one hand and gesturing the sign of the cross in the other, is certainly a beautiful piece of art, but it is just one in a collection of thousands of paintings of Christ, many done by other very famous artists, within art history. So why did it sell for so much?
Much of the answer to this question comes down to authenticity. Salvator Mundi has a long history; made in 1490-1500, possibly for King Louis XII of France, it passed through a number of royal collections before going missing for 200 years and then resurfacing again at the end of the 19th century. Later, it was sold in 1958 for just £45 after being attributed to Boltraffio – a member of Da Vinci’s studio – rather than Da Vinci himself. It was then sold in 2005, this time for $10,000, and following this sale years of restoration and research were done in order to both restore the painting to its initial quality and prove that it was painted by Da Vinci. By 2013 the painting had been authenticated and was sold for $75-80 million to Yves Bouvier and then again for $127.5 million later that year to Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, the man who put the painting up for auction last week.
Whilst the jump from $10,000 to $127.5 million dollars in less than a decade proves the crucial nature of authenticity and artist status to a painting’s value, it still doesn’t explain how the same painting went for almost three times its previous sale price last week.
Leonardo Da Vinci is one of the most famous artists ever, and the small size of his known collective works (there are only 16 paintings attributed to him in existence) results in every painting being even more highly valued due to its rarity. Thus, when a new Da Vinci painting comes on the market, especially after being lost for so long, it is understandable that people would want to pay a lot for it. However, whilst the jump from $10,000 to $127.5 million dollars in less than a decade proves the crucial nature of authenticity and artist status to a painting’s value, it still doesn’t explain how the same painting went for almost three times its previous sale price last week.
Many have attributed this success at auction to the marketing campaign of Christie’s, who displayed the painting around the world prior to selling it, thus building up a sense of excitement and interest around the work. Another marketing tactic of the auction house was to the sell the painting in the Post-War and Contemporary section rather than within the category of the Old Masters. From a selling perspective, this makes sense, as these paintings are the ones that make the most money; prior to the sale of Salvator Mundi, there was only one Old Master painting (Rembrant’s Portrait of Marten Soolmans and Portrait of Oopjen Coppit, 1634) on the list of the top 10 highest selling paintings of all time. There is more money in modern art, and whilst Salvator Mundi was made over 500 years ago, the choice of Christie’s to include it in this section meant that it could be displayed to the extremely wealthy who were ready to spend money on art.
The various marketing ploys used by Christie’s appear to have contributed more to its high price than the quality of the painting itself.
The painting was sold to an anonymous buyer, so its future is uncertain and it may possibly vanish as it did previously. Whilst many art works are sold for excessively high prices to anonymous buyers, never to be seen again in the public sphere, the future of this particular painting is of higher concern due to its age and subsequent fragile state. Whilst many buyers loan their paintings to museums and galleries indefinitely in order to ensure their upkeep, the anonymity of the buyer of Salvator Mundi suggests that this may not happen.
Following its sale, Thomas Campbell, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, instagrammed a picture of the painting prior to restoration, captioning it: “450 million dollars?! Hope the buyer understands conservation issues…” which prompted an angry response from one of the painting’s previous owners, Robert Simon, who was key in the effort to restore the painting in 2005, deeming the comment “ill-informed and mean-spirited”. As well as raising the issues of conservation that surround the private sale of this painting, Campbell also commented on the price it sold for, describing it as “eye-popping”, but that “it should come as no surprise in a market where speculation, marketing and branding have displaced connoisseurship as the metrics of value”. Indeed, the dramatic history of the painting and the quest to prove its authenticity, as well as the various marketing ploys used by Christie’s appear to have contributed more to its high price than the quality of the painting itself.
(Image courtesy of Peter Nicholls/Reuters)