1. NEW YORK - Tonight, at an absolutely packed salesroom at Christie’s headquarters at Rockefeller Center in New York, Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (ca. 1500) sold for $450.3 million.
That figure is, by a long shot, the all-time record for a painting at auction and the most ever believed to have been paid for an artwork.
The work had carried a guarantee understood to be around $100 million, so it was a certainty to sell, but the bidding blew past that number quickly and kept going over the course of 19 minutes.
Scattered applause and whistles went through the salesroom when the work reached $200 million, causing the auctioneer, Jussi Pylkkanen, to shush the crowd. The bidding slowed around $230 million, as bidders dueled, but it kept climbing—to $240 million, then $250 million, then $255 million, then $260 million. The bidding increments slowed, climbing by $2 million at a time, to $268 million, then $270 million. It reached $282 million, then $284 million. “Still two of you in the game here,” Pylkkanen said.
As he moved toward a sale, the bidding jumped to $286 million, which was then answered with $300 million. “I thought so,” Pylkkanen said, as the room erupted in laughter and cheers. The bidding sat there for a moment. “We’ll wait. Historic moment here,” he said.
But it just kept climbing—to $310 million, to $318 million. “Are we all done in the salesroom?” he asked. It went to $320 million. “We’re still not done!” Then $350 million arrived, followed by $352 million, and Pylkkanen took a drink of water, playing it cool, apparently unconcerned. The bidders would just not stop, and it went up from there. Finally a bid of $400 million came, which was enough to win the day. The buyer will pay about $50 million in fees.
The result comes after a marketing campaign by Christie’s that spared no expense, involving a worldwide tour of the painting that attracted more than 25,000 viewers and a promotional video that featured a variety of people staring at the work, in some cases being moved to tears. Among those bearing witness were musician Patti Smith and the actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who will play Leonardo in a forthcoming biopic.
In the days leading up to the sale, there was much discussion of the work’s florid history and condition, and fervent debate about the exact nature of its authenticity, but none of the chatter apparently worried the bidders.
Christie’s touted the work as a commission from King Louis XII of France and his wife, Anne of Brittany, and noted in its promotional materials its unbelievable price history, going for £45 at Sotheby’s in London in 1958 (when no one regarded it as a Leonardo). When it was considered a copy of a lost Leonardo, it sold for less than $10,000 at another auction house in 2005, as the New York Times noted.
The now-embattled Swiss art businessman Yves Bouvier later bought it for $80 million and then sold it for $127.5 million to the Russian oligarch Dmitry E. Rybolovlev, who is currently involved in extensive litigation with Bouvier alleging that Bouvier overcharged him in a number of transactions. The family trust of Rybolovlev is the seller of the painting.
Christie’s has billed “Salvator Mundi” as the last Leonardo painting in private hands. The much-restored and abraded oil-on-panel shows Christ, half-length, as savior of the world, his right hand raised in blessing and his left holding a crystal orb. It is certain to sell for at least $100 million, thanks to a guarantee from a third-party backer. The price will be a new high for any old master at auction, beating the $76.7 million achieved in 2002 at Sotheby’s for the Rubens masterpiece “The Massacre of the Innocents.”
Unlike that Rubens, however, “Salvator Mundi” has been the subject of legal disputes.
The painting is being sold by the family trust of the Russian billionaire collector Dmitry E. Rybolovlev, who purchased it in May 2013 for $127.5 million through Yves Bouvier, a Swiss art dealer and businessman. Mr. Bouvier had recently bought the painting for $80 million from Sotheby’s, which brokered a private sale on behalf of three New York art dealers. One of them had spotted the work eight years earlier at an estate auction in the United States, and had bought it for less than $10,000.
Mr. Bouvier’s move to resell the work within days at a markup of more than $40 million prompted a litigious response from both Mr. Rybolovlev and the New York art dealers.
The Russian collector claims in a continuing multijurisdictional lawsuit that he was fraudulently overcharged by Mr. Bouvier for the Leonardo and 37 other major-name artworks, for which he paid about $2 billion. Mr. Bouvier denies the accusations. Mr. Rybolovlev’s family trust sold four of the works at Christie’s in March, unprotected by guarantees. The pieces by Gauguin, Magritte, Rodin and Picasso had been purchased from Mr. Bouvier for a total of $174 million. They recouped $43.7 million.
After the filing of Mr. Rybolovlev’s suit in 2015, Mr. Bouvier was arrested in Monaco and released on bail of 10 million euros, or about $11.6 million at current exchange rates. He subsequently counterclaimed that the Monaco judiciary was biased in favor of Mr. Rybolovlev. In September, Monaco’s minister of justice, Philippe Narmino, resigned after the French newspaper Le Monde published text messages indicating that he had been influenced by Mr. Rybolovlev and his legal team. With his own legal costs mounting, Mr. Bouvier sold the Geneva branch of his art storage business last month.
The three dealers who sold “Salvator Mundi” through Sotheby’s, aggrieved by the scale of Mr. Bouvier’s profit, threatened last year to sue the auction house. In November, Sotheby’s moved to block the lawsuit with a declaratory judgment action, but it has since been withdrawn and the matter resolved.
With the drama swirling around “Salvator Mundi,” it can be difficult to appraise and appreciate the painting as a work of art. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/03/arts/christies-leonardo-da-vinci-auction.html
Who Bought It
Some dealers say the buyer is likely an American, since there is only one da Vinci in the U.S. — currently at the National Gallery in Washington — and it would make sense for a billionaire to buy it and donate it to a museum in New York or L.A.
Others say the price suggests it was a foreign buyer willing to pay anything to have a da Vinci in, say, China or the Middle East.
"This feels to me like it was someone who wanted to bring the only Leonardo to Asia," said one major collector. First, the sheer price of the painting rules out most everyday billionaires. Anyone who pays nearly a half billion for a painting is likely to be worth at well over $5 billion and most likely over $10 billion. That rules out all but around 150 of the world's more than 2,000 billionaires, according to wealth experts.
And while there are no credible reports on who the buyer might be, some of the most obvious candidates can be ruled out.
There has been some speculation that the buyer was hedge-fund billionaire Ken Griffin, who purchased a de Kooning and Jackson Pollock for a combined $500 million and lent them to the Art Institute of Chicago. Griffin wouldn't comment but sources in the art world say he was not the buyer of the da Vinci.
Another American candidate was Alice Walton, the Wal-Mart heiress who has spent hundreds of millions to fund the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas. The museum didn't immediately comment, but people close to the museum said "not likely."
With overseas buyers, some have speculated that it could have been Liu Yiqian, the Chinese billionaire who purchased a Modigliani for $170 million in 2015 to put in his new Shanghai museum, called the Long Museum. But on Thursday, Liu posted a message on WeChat saying he wasn't the buyer. "Congratulations to the buyer. Feeling kind of defeated right now."
One other possibility is the world's richest man, Jeff Bezos. He certainly has the cash. Aside from being worth $95 billion, Bezos sold $1 billion worth of stock in early November and didn't announce a use of the proceeds. Of course, the cash could be going to fund his Blue Origin aerospace company or a new philanthropy initiative. But that cash would have also been able to easily buy the da Vinci, which he could then donate to a museum in Seattle or wherever Amazon decides to put its new headquarters. As a fan of history and other geniuses, Bezos would see the piece as far more than a painting.
A spokesperson for Amazon didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Whoever purchased the painting isn't likely to be able to keep it a secret for long. Such a high profile purchase in the age of social media and gossip is hard to keep under wraps. And the price suggests that the buyer is likely to want to put it in a museum for all the world to see. More than 27,000 people flocked to see the piece as it made its way around the world as part of Christie's marketing campaign. Let's hope the new buyer opens it up to the public again.