Last night’s sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi for $450,312,500 at Christie’s New York was a triumph – but of what, precisely? The astonishing price – more than double the previous record for a work of art sold at auction, and presumably the most expensive work of art ever – is certainly a tribute to the ingenuity and hard work of the auction house’s staff across the globe. It also serves as a justification of the traditional auction model, currently much undermined by private treaty sales at the top level, for such a price could never have been attained by any negotiation. Most of all, however, it revealed the power not so much of the genius of Leonardo da Vinci, as of the darker arts of an unabashedly manipulative promotional campaign.
How can a painting that seemed to be all but ignored by the general public in 2011 at its unveiling in the National Gallery of London’s Leonardo show suddenly become a painting that engenders a kind of mass hysteria? By the time it was placed in a trophy contemporary art sale, toured like a circus act alongside Warhol’s Sixty Last Suppers and exhibited in Hong Kong, San Francisco, London, and New York, Salvator Mundi drew queues around every block. As the screens theatrically rolled back in Hong Kong – a reprise of the trick of the legendary art dealer Duveen – there were shrieks and squeals and blinding camera flashes. In New York, the design of the display suggested the hallowed darkness of a shrine. When I was invited to cross the barrier to see the panel up close, a murmur of rebellion from behind led to a surge of visitors ducking under the barrier to press their mobiles close to the panel – almost like touching the hem of Christ’s robe.
That the reaction of the public was a critical part of this campaign is revealed by Christie’s commissioning – and posting online – a compelling, Bill Viola-esque film of people’s responses to the image. It is tempting to see this – as well as the television coverage and queues – as a bid to entice Asian and Middle Eastern buyers who either have or are building museums, and are the market’s biggest players (at least one of these appears to be an under-bidder). Similarly, much was made of the painting as the ‘Male Mona Lisa’, rather than a Christian icon. As Christie’s impresario Loïc Gouzer put it: ‘Salvator Mundi is a painting of the most iconic figure in the world by the most important artist of all time.’
In this post-truth age, Christie’s persisted in describing the painting as ‘The Last Leonardo’, his only work remaining in private hands, although knowing perfectly well that another belongs to the Duke of Buccleuch. Its publicity could also wax lyrical that ‘Both of Christ’s hands, the exquisitely rendered curls of his hair, the orb, and much of his drapery are in fact remarkably well preserved and close to their original state,’ without pointing out the obvious: that the rest of the painting – and the most important part – was not. This painting would not have fared so well in an Old Master sale.
As of writing, the vendor has not revealed him or herself. What is clear from their bidding, however, which continually leaped over increments to bid nice round numbers, is that it was obviously important to them to have bought the work for a headline-fit hammer price of $400m. The fact that I can still remember that it was the Yasuda Fire and Marine Insurance Company of Tokyo that paid the world record price for Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in 1987 suggests that the painting was worth every cent of its $39.9m. While it is tempting to conclude that it was the $100m estimate on the Leonardo that drew the crowds, it will be the $400m purchase price that will ensure its notoriety.
This sale was guaranteed – that is, already sold, for around $95m. The guarantor of the picture who gains from the upside will be a very happy man. As for the vendor, the disgruntled Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, who knows? For this historic sale has failed to prove that he was overcharged for the painting, as he contests, when he bought it for $127.5m in 2013.