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$450 Million Leonardo da Vinci painting leads Christie’s Contemporary Art Sale

November 15, 2017

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
Salvator Mundi
oil on panel
25 √ x 18 in. (65.7 x 45.7 cm.)
Painted circa 1500.
Estimate on Request (approximately $100 million).

UPDATE: Bidding on the painting opened at $70 million. At $90 million the auctioneer announced he could sell the work.  Bidding continued in $10 million increments past $200 million (the audience in the room gasped and applauded), then it got interesting.  At $288 million, the bidding jumped to $300 million; at $332 million it jumped to $350 million; then $355 million to $370.  After 19 minutes and two determined telephone bidders, there was an aggressive $30 million increment that took the picture to a $400 million hammer price ($450,312,500 with the buyer’s fees).

ORIGINAL POST: In 1958 a painting of Christ titled Salvator Mundi by the great renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci, the lead lot in Christie’s Post War and Contemporary Art sale in New York on November 15, 2017, was sold by Sotheby’s in London as a work by “Boltrafio” for £45.  The picture, which was unveiled as a genuine Leonardo in 2011 at the National Gallery exhibition in London “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan” following six years of study, is now slated to bring in something on the order of $100 million.  Also included in the sale is an outstanding late work by Cy Twombly from the great Bacchus series of paintings, a declarative Franz Klinefrom 1960, an enormous late Andy Warhol based on Leonardo’s The Last Supper fresco in Milan, and the usual assortment of seven and eight figure auction staples by Basquiat and Rothko, as well as Calder, Grotjahn, Serra, etc.

The inclusion of the Leonardo is a clever bit of marketing and a recognition that the really big money in art auctions can be found at the Post War and Contemporary sales, and not necessarily at the Old Masters.  These standing room only sales have become spectacles for “trophy art” buffered by monstrously heavy sale catalogues, breathy and slickly produced online video content, world tours for the top lots (this work was shown in Hong Kong, New York, London and San Francisco), and the post-sale whiff of (momentary) immortality for the successful buyer of the greatest lot. There’s also the Leonardo brand halo that anoints the Twomblys, et al., as art world peers.  Sotheby’s and Christie’s have been engaging in cross-departmental sale pollination for several years, hoping to gin up interest in antiquities, Old Masters and other areas of collecting among the ultra-rich contemporary art set and this sale is the (current) apotheosis of this strategy.

Screen grab from Christie’s promotional video.

The Leonardo is being sold off, according to the Times of London, “by the businessman Dmitry Rybolovlev as he continues to dismantle what was, for a short period, one of the most expensive private art collections ever assembled.”  When the painting was shown at the National Gallery it was owned by R.W. Chandler, a consortium represented by Robert Simon, an art historian and private art dealer in Tuxedo Park, N.Y.  The Times article continues: “Mr Rybolovlev, a Russian-born potash oligarch, acquired it during a billion-dollar buying spree over the past decade. In 2014 he and Elena Rybolovleva, his wife for 27 years, divorced and he was ordered to pay her $4.5 billion. That amount was reduced to $605 million before the pair reached an undisclosed settlement in 2015.”

Oh, but there’s more: “Also weighing on Mr Rybolovlev’s mind was a dispute with Yves Bouvier, the art dealer who helped him to procure his enviable collection. Mr Rybolovlev alleges that Mr Bouvier made him overpay as he assembled 40 of the world’s most sought-after works for about $2 billion. Mr Bouvier denies the allegation.”  Apparently, Rybolovlev is going to lose millions on this: “Mr Rybolovlev is said to have bought it through Mr Bouvier in 2013 for $127.5 million, after it was sold through Sotheby’s in New York for less than $80 million. This year Mr Rybolovlev sold several masterpieces, allegedly for millions of pounds less than he had paid for them in deals conducted through Mr Bouvier. The sale included a Mark Rothko, a Paul Gauguin, a Pablo Picasso and an Auguste Rodin.”

Screen grab from Christie’s Hong Kong, “The Last da Vinci: Christie’s in Conversation with Alastair Sooke, Art Critic and Presenter.” Alastair Sooke joins hands with Christie’s Loic Gouzer (Co-Chairman, Post-War & Contemporary) and Francois de Poortere (Head of Old Masters Painting) in a detailed discussion on one of the greatest artistic rediscoveries of the 21st Century, Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi’.

Rybolovlev may have ultimately acquired the painting, but a year earlier in mid-2012 the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) considered buying the work for a purported asking price in the region of $200 million.  At the time, Brian Boucher writing for Art in America about the DMA’s interest interviewed New York-based Old Master dealer Richard Feigen, who said: “To me it is not a gripping masterpiece.”  Boucher reported: ‘Salvator Mundi has been “very considerably overpainted,” according to the catalogue from the National Gallery’s exhibition, and subsequently “aggressively over-cleaned,” in addition to, at some point, suffering a split in the wood panel, resulting in some paint losses.’  At that time, Boucher indicated that the DMA was not the only museum that had considered the work.  By the end of 2012, the proposed sale to the DMA had tanked.

Normally, a painting that seems to be “shopped out” would be a risk at auction; however, this lot, according to the catalogue, has a third party guarantee: “This is a lot where Christie’s holds a direct financial guarantee interest that is backed by a third party’s irrevocable bid.” So, it will go home with someone; the question is, with whom?

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