Da Vinci’s Painting Astronomical Sale Puzzles the Art World

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Most art works are usually auctioned based on their artistic work and beauty but the sky-high sale of Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi’-an image of Christ in an embroidered blue robe, holding an orb in his left hand- recently has raised eyebrows. And there are good reasons to be puzzled.

First, the painting‘s authenticity has been debatable. As the only remaining painting of the great artist that was not in public space-most Da Vinci’s work were in museums- art collectors have meticulously stayed away from the painting over the years due to numerous reworking and restorations. A good pointer to this is the observation made by the New York Times Editorial Board on why images passing through the crystal orb in Jesus’ hand not inverted. The painting is now a hybrid of its original form and an imagined restoration.

While the provenance of Salvator Mundi is from the royal palace of Charles I and Charles II of England before being commissioned by King Louis XII of France, the painting has been with different custodians over the past centuries. However, the sale of the painting by the Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev who lived in Monaco and was involved in a lawsuit against the Swiss dealer who over the years helped him amass a huge art collection, including the Leonardo made Salvator Mundi’s history more nebulous.

In 2005, when the painting was rediscovered, it was purchased at an estate sale. for less than $10,000. The auction price rose to $200 million when it was first offered for sale by a consortium of three dealers in 2012. Only the Dallas Museum of Art showed public interest in buying it that year. In 2013 however, Sotheby’s sold it privately for $80 million to Yves Bouvier, a Swiss art dealer and businessman. He sold it afterwards for $127.5 million to the family trust of the Rybolovlev. Mr. Rybolovlev’s family trust was the seller on Wednesday night.

Arguably, old works of art attract huge sums. Take for instance, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1982 skull painting that sold earlier in the year for a gulping $110.5 million; a Picasso sold for $179.4 million in 2015 and a Rubens $76.7 million for a Rubens in 2002.
Ordinarily, apart from its rarity, Salvator Mundi didn’t cast much hope in the art market, but Christie the auctioneer came up with a hat-trick that might shaped the landscape of art market. He carried out an aggressive marketing campaign that spurred curiosity and emotional appeal.

He held pre-sale viewings in Hong Kong, London, San Francisco and New York which drew 27,000 people. An outside agency was hired to create a dramatic video which related the “real-life emotions” of selected viewers. He didn’t end there. He caused a frenzy by referring to the work as “the male Mona Lisa” and to the artist as “da Vinci,” a name popularised by author Dan Brown, than the “Leonardo” commonly used by scholars.

The outcome of his strategy paid off when the painting was bought for a staggering sum of $400 million, plus $50.3 million in commissions.
The record-breaking sale got art critics wondering if a brand name should be placed higher than the artistic value of a work. Arguably, this last piece of work by the maestro according to some scholars is not exceptional. But having a Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting is totally not unexceptional.

While some argued that the painting was overpriced, others embraced the sale with the hope that the art market will shatter more ceilings in the future. Moreso, Christie has reassert the notion that art is an asset class.