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The Da Vinci Sale and a New Meaning of What Art is Worth

The staggering price reached by Salvator Mundi prompts the question: what are you really buying when you buy an artwork?

If the past is any indication, Wednesday’s anonymous buyer didn’t make a smart financial investment. After the family trust of the Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev purchased Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of Christ, Salvator Mundi (c.1500), from the Swiss dealer Yves Bouvier for USD$127.5 million in 2014, Rybolovlev alleged that he’d been vastly overcharged and filed a lawsuit in Monaco. Before that, at an estate auction in 2005, the painting was presumed to be a copy and was bought for under $10,000.

But on Wednesday night, at a star-studded and cleverly hyped contemporary auction at Christie’s in New York, Salvator Mundi sold to an anonymous party over the telephone for an astonishing and record-shattering $450.3 million, including the buyer’s premium.

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Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi (Saviour of the World), c.1500, oil on walnut, 66 x 45 cm. Courtesy: Christie’s, London / New York

Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi (Saviour of the World), c.1500, oil on walnut, 66 x 45 cm. Courtesy: Christie’s, London / New York

The art world was shocked and, justifiably, confused by the price. Thomas P. Campbell, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, took to Instagram: ‘450 million dollars?! Hope the buyer understands conservation issues ...’ Brett Gorvy, the former head of the postwar & contemporary art department at Christie’s, retorted in Campbell’s comments section: ‘Would love to see the condition report on the Mona Lisa or The Last Supper ...’

But Gorvy, as clever a specialist – now dealer – as he is, held a weak hand and a facile argument. Salvator Mundi is nowhere near as good of a painting as da Vinci’s The Last Supper (c.1495) or Mona Lisa (1503). In fact, Salvator Mundi is – by the standards of Da Vinci – rather boring.

In 2007, after Robert Simon, a specialist in Old Masters, confirmed the painting’s authenticity, Dianne Dwyer Modestini, a renowned restorer of Old Masters and 19th century paintings, was hired to restore Salvator Mundi, taking nearly six years to complete the process. And yet, as admirable of a job as Modestini did, the problem with Salvator Mundi is not with its state of preservation and restoration so much as with the underlying painting itself.

‘Even making allowances for its extremely poor state of preservation, it is a curiously unimpressive composition and it is hard to believe that Leonardo himself was responsible for anything so dull,’ wrote Charles Hope, an expert in 15th and 16th-century Italian painting, in The New York Review of Books in 2012, when the painting was on show at the National Gallery in London.

The painting doesn’t shimmer with energy; it’s oddly dark when seen in person, and the figure of Christ appears flattened, more an icon painting one might find in the back room of Paris’ Musée de Cluny or in a far-off medieval wing of the Met than what one comes to expect upon hearing the name ‘Da Vinci.’

But that name. The name of a polymath genius and a star of Western civilization, revered for the better half of a millennium. A name that drew art-collecting titans like Steve Cohen, Eli Broad, and Larry Gagosian (who, according to Bloomberg’s Katya Kazakina, could only react with a ‘Jesus Christ’ when Jussi Pylkkanen, the famed auctioneer, struck the final gavel). A name that brought Leonardo DiCaprio – close friends with Christie’s superstar contemporary specialist Loïc Gouzer – to watch from a skybox. A name that brought Patti Smith to a seat in the front row.

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Agents celebrate after the sale of Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi (c.1500) during the Post-War and Contemporary Art evening sale at Christie's on November 15, 2017 in New York. Photograph: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

Agents celebrate after the sale of Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi (c.1500) during the Post-War and Contemporary Art evening sale at Christie's on November 15, 2017 in New York. Photograph: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

Christie’s understood the power of the name. The auction house billed the painting as ‘the male Mona Lisa.’ They released a four-minute promotional video set to classical music of people staring at it, including DiCaprio brooding beneath his signature newsboy cap and a woman with her hands outstretched, as if praising the painting like a god. Special red paddles were handed out to those in the room who were bidding on the painting. The sale was, in every way, a spectacle.

The question of the painting’s authenticity was, most intentionally, not part of the evening, although it’s a subject that’s been widely discussed. I’m in no position to level a judgment on it, but while most scholars agree that it was, in fact, painted by Da Vinci’s hand, a few, including the Paris-based Da Vinci specialist Jacques Franck aren’t so sure. ‘The composition doesn’t come from Leonardo,’ Franck said.

But let’s assume it’s real, as the majority of specialists and scholars believe. There will probably never be a bigger art discovery than this in a lifetime. Even if there is – if, somehow, a Michelangelo is found at the bottom of a bin or another Da Vinci, who has fewer than 20 works still in existence, comes to light – it won’t be like this. This is a first. A work by a Renaissance master rediscovered. While waiting for another offer during what amounted to a 19-minute bidding war, Pylkkanen, the auctioneer, took a pause. ‘It’s an historic moment,’ he said to the rapt room; ‘we’ll wait.’

Some might say the fact that a painting as relatively dull as Salvator Mundi can still sell for nearly a half billion dollars shows the out-of-control nature of today’s art market. Some might say that it demonstrates how the art world has become little more than an investment scheme. But I don’t think a painting like this will be locked away in a tax-free, climate-controlled Swiss warehouse like so many expensive artworks are.

Someone believed in this artwork. It sounds almost corny to talk about ‘passion’ in art collecting these days (a subject for a different discussion), but with the price so mind-numbingly high and so disassociated from the reality of its past and, surely, future value, I suspect the buyer is going to want to hang it above his mantel.

The question that deserves asking: what are you really buying when you buy an artwork? Does it matter if it’s real or if it’s fake; if it’s well preserved or poorly preserved; if it’s bought out of passion or out of calculated investment? The obvious arbiter of those questions is Salvator Mundi’s buyer who is yet to be named. But it’s also a question anyone interested in art must reckon with. What is an artwork? Is it a piece of physical aestheticism to be bought and sold, or is there a more nebulous kind idea of ‘value’ – the value of history, of a genius’ creative impulse made manifest?

Viewed from the latter perspective, the typical understanding of the art market begins to fall apart; it also helps explain what compelled the buyer to part with nearly half a billion dollars. Through an incredibly tiny, privileged, but nonetheless existent lens, there’s an angle from which it might not have been a bad investment at all.

Main image: Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi (detail), c.1500, oil on walnut, 66 x 45 cm. Courtesy: Christie’s, London / New York

Cody Delistraty is a writer and critic based in Paris, France.

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