Leonardo’s “Salvator Mundi”: A Historic Painting, A Historic Sale

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In less than twenty minutes, history was made at Christie’s in New York. On November 15th, Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi was purchased by an anonymous buyer for a record-breaking $450,312,500. This price is four and a half times greater than the guaranteed bid of 100 million, and it is two and a half times more than the price of the previous record for most expensive painting sold. However, a half century ago, Salvator Mundi was sold at a Sotheby’s sale for a measly £45. What is the story of this painting, how did it acquire so much value, and what does its record-breaking sale mean for the future of the art market?

Salvator Mundi

The painting has a long and intriguing backstory of how it came to Christie’s. It is believed Louis XII of France commissioned the work around 1505. It was later sold to King Charles I of England where it was first recorded in the inventory of the Royal Collection in 1649. Then it was sold to the Duke of Buckingham in 1763. For many years the painting’s origins were unknown until it reappeared in the 1900s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Salvator Mundi prior to professional restoration work

At this time, the painting was damaged leading experts to believe it was a copy of the da Vinci original. The painting disappeared once again until 2005 when it appeared at a regional auction in Louisiana. Now, the painting was even more unrecognizable due to amateur restoration work and substantial damage. In 2007, Dianne Dwyer Modestini, Senior Research Fellow and Conservator of the Kress Program in Paintings Conservation at the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts, began a comprehensive restoration of the painting. Modestini uncovered clues that she believed suggested the painting was an original da Vinci. Scholars spent more than six years researching the work. In 2011, the painting was included in a Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery of London lending validation to those who claimed the piece was a da Vinci. This exhibition also led to a sharp increase in the painting’s value. In 2013, the painting was sold to Yves Bouvier, a Swiss businessman, for $80 million. He immediately sold the painting to the Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev for $127.5 million. Rybolovlev is the man behind the painting’s recent sale at Christie’s.

Although there is not complete agreement among experts about the painting’s attribution, many scholars point to several pieces of evidence in favor of the Leonardo designation. While working to restore the piece, Modestini discovered several pentimenti—visible traces of compositional ideas later changed that are present beneath layers of paint. For example, da Vinci changed the position of Jesus’s thumb. According to experts, a copyist would have no need to include pentimenti. Additionally, the painting was done on walnut panel, a fact consistent with da Vinci’s penchant for experimenting with different materials. Moreover it was painted in many thin layers of almost translucent paint like other contemporaneous da Vinci works. Restoration work, although necessary, also complicates the ability to authenticate the work as Sotheby’s senior international specialist explains: “quite a lot of painting by Leonardo, but, over time, it has had to be restored, and now quite a lot of it is later restorers’ paint, so it’s not in an absolutely pristine state. There are passages of it by Leonardo; enough passages for it to be sold as a Leonardo.” Nevertheless, expert opinions, the 2011 exhibition, and now the Christie’s auction certainly cement the painting’s status as a Leonardo da Vinci.

Experts postulate that the painting’s interesting history, the rarity of da Vinci paintings, and Christie’s marketing strategy contributed to the astronomical price at which the painting was sold. There are believed to be fewer than twenty Leonardo da Vinci paintings in existence. Christie’s capitalized on the work’s exclusivity declaring it “the last painting by Leonardo da Vinci in private hands.” The auction house also stressed the significance of the discovery. Loic Gouzer, Chairman of Post-War and Contemporary Art, likened finding a new Leonardo da Vinci painting to discovering a new planet. Christie’s also made an effort to drum up attention about the painting. It went on tour to London, Hong Kong, and San Francisco. Additionally, the auction house released a promotional video showing people’s expressions as they gazed at the Salvator Mundi. The video, “The World is watching,” was shot by renowned portrait photographer Nadav Kander and featured a few famous faces including actor Leonardo DiCaprio and singer Patti Smith.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stills from the film “The World is Watching”

In a maneuver to draw even more attention to the piece, Christie’s included it in its postwar and contemporary sale, which attracts a larger range of buyers and generates larger sales than Old Masters auctions. Christie’s claimed the relevance of this piece to today’s society justified its placement within the postwar and contemporary sale.

Bidding for Salvador Mundi at Christie’s.

Photo by Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

Does the Salvator Mundi auction reveal anything about the future of the art market? Since Leonardo da Vinci paintings are quite rare and it is doubtful one will appear on the market again, the record-breaking sale will most likely not affect the art market as a whole. Yet, the sale provides support for several trends in the art world. It is part of a string of recent blockbuster sales in which only an extremely wealthy private citizen can afford the work. Additionally, the success of placing the da Vinci painting within the contemporary art auction may lead auction houses to reconsider art historical categories. Like Christie’s, Sotheby’s recently shared success after doing so. It included a Ferrari Formula One racing car in its contemporary sale, and it sold for 7.5 million against a presale estimate of 4 million. Similarly, it included a Georgia O’Keefe pastel in the Impressionist and modern sale instead of the American art auction. It sold for 4.4 million against a 2.5 million estimate. While the Salvator Mundi auction does suggest the existence of certain trends in the art world, it is unlikely the world will witness a sale of the same magnitude anytime soon.

Guards in front of the Salvator Mundi displayed at Christie’s. 

Photo by IIya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Christie’s Auction House

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