1. NEW YORK (AFP).- A triumph of marketing over aesthetics? Or the legitimate cost of owning a Da Vinci? The sale of a Renaissance portrait of Jesus Christ for nearly half a billion dollars has stunned the art world.
Its quality and condition are debated and isolated doubts may even linger over its authenticity. But few dispute that the $450.3 million price tag for reputedly Leonardo da Vinci's "Salvator Mundi" was anything less than historic.
"Unbelievable," said Georgina Adam, an editor-at-large at The Art Newspaper whose book on excesses in the 21st century art market comes out next month.
"If you were in for a trophy work of art, this was it," she said. "It was a now or never opportunity and the market spoke. And the price is huge. It's colossal."
For now, the identity of the buyer remains a mystery. The 19-minute sale came down to two clients outbidding each other by telephone to exhilarated gasps from a packed room at Christie's in New York.
Speculation has focused on a select group of billionaires -- perhaps in Asia -- with enough cash and artistic interest to consider $450 million an affordable splurge.
Others could be museums in the Gulf. The Louvre, for example, which opened last week in Abu Dhabi? Although some Western art experts wonder if Middle Eastern buyers would not have balked over a piece of Christian iconography.
"This was a once in a lifetime opportunity. This is the X-factor," said Loic Gouzer, the chairman of Christie's post-war and contemporary art department who secured the painting, put up for sale by a Russian billionaire.
Price, not aesthetics
"That's the enigma of Leonardo," said Gouzer. "The magic of the artist."
But others were less sure.
The Mundi is not the best Da Vinci painting in the world, nor is it in immaculate condition. Decades and decades of its life are unaccounted for. The panel on which it was painted split and cracked. Some have criticized its cleaning and restoration.
"Best case, it's by Da Vinci, it's in terrible condition and it's not a gripping masterpiece and it's got a big question mark about its provenance," said Todd Levin, director of a New York private art advisory.
"The common denominator here is price -- not aesthetics, subject matter or place in the history of art," says Darius Spieth, a professor at Louisiana State University.
"I take my hats off to them," said Levin of Christie's. "They got somebody to take on faith that this thing was worth half a billion dollars."
The auction house waged what even critics acknowledge was a clever marketing campaign, trading on name recognition of Dan Brown's best-selling thriller "The Da Vinci Code" and the 2006 blockbuster movie starring Tom Hanks.
That other Leonardo -- the movie star Di Caprio -- appeared in a promotional video. It was also the first time an Old Master was included in a post-war and contemporary sale that attracts the world's biggest art spenders.
"From a marketing perspective, it was a very smart move, no doubt. But it's kind of turning a little bit the art market into 'The Da Vinci Code'," said Spieth.
The auction house pitched it as "the greatest and most unexpected artistic rediscovery of the 21st century" -- declining to mention that its seller went to court charging he was ripped off into buying it for $127.5 million in 2013.
The work had been exhibited in London in 2011 after years of research to document its authenticity after it was found in 2005, mistaken for a copy.
In the build-up to the sale, Christie's flew the painting all over the world, saying nearly 30,000 people saw it in Hong Kong, London, New York and San Francisco.
With fewer than 20 Da Vincis by the Italian's hand generally accepted to exist, Christie's also traded heavily on its rarity.
The sale was indicative of the trend in fabulously wealthy buyers dropping eye-watering sums on trophy acquisitions, albeit at a time when art funding is declining in the West.
"It's almost intangible," says Rachel Pownall, professor of finance at Maastricht University School of Business and Economics, of its worth.
Da Vinci, Pownall says, is so famous that his work exerts a unique pull on the super rich searching for the ultimate status symbol.
"I'll venture to say that the person who purchased this Da Vinci was not a lover of Renaissance art," one US art appraiser told AFP. "They're wealthy so they need to own valuable art to kind of show off."
© Agence France-Presse
2. NEW YORK The painting was said to be the last Leonardo in private hands and “the greatest artistic rediscovery of the 21st century.” It was long believed to have existed but was generally presumed to have been destroyed.
Bidders had to register for a special red paddle to take part in the Leonardo sale.
Auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen, Global President of Christie’s, started the bidding at $75 million, pulling in at least 45 bids from clients on the telephone and in the room. The competition settled between Alex Rotter, Co-Chairman of Post-War and Contemporary Art, and Francois de Poortere, Head of Department, Old Masters, New York, both acting on behalf of anonymous clients of Christie’s. At the $400 million mark, de Poortere’s telephone client bowed out. The final price, after nearly 20 minutes of bidding, included fees; estimates are at hammer prices.
The haunting oil-on-panel painting depicts a half-length figure of Christ as Savior of the World, facing frontally and dressed in flowing robes of lapis and crimson. He holds a crystal orb in his left hand as he raises his right hand in benediction.
The previous top painting sale price was Picasso's “Women of Algiers,” which sold for $160 million.
The work, dating from about 1500, was commissioned by the French Royal Family and travelled with Henrietta Maria to England. It was first properly recorded, 100 years after being created, in the Royal collection of King Charles I. It is believed to have hung in the private chambers of his wife in Greenwich. It later passed to King Charles II and in 1763 was sold to the Duke of Buckingham’s family to pay the King’s debts. The Buckinghams later put it to auction as they sold the original Buckingham Palace.
It then disappeared until 1900, when it appeared heavily overpainted and was acquired by Sir Charles Robinson as a work attributed to Leonardo’s follower, Bernardino Luini. It stayed in the Cook Collection until it was sold for £45 at Sotheby’s in 1958.
Another 50-year gap followed until it emerged in 2005. The buyers have revealed little except it was purchased from an American estate at a small regional auction house for an undisclosed sum now reported to be $100,000. Dealers assume its price has since soared. Six years of cleaning, conservation and research followed.
In 2011, proclaimed as a genuine Leonardo, it was put in the show exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan” at The National Gallery, London.
Reports said that four years ago it was bought by a Russian billionaire collector, Dmitry E Rybolovlev, for $127 million in a private sale. It was subsequently offered for about $200 million.
More than 29,700 people have seen the painting in Christie’s shows staged in Hong Kong, London, San Francisco and New York.
“Salvator Mundi is a painting of the most iconic figure in the world by the most important artist of all time,” Loic Gouzer, Chairman, Post-War and Contemporary Art, New York, said before the sale.
The work’s authenticity has still raised questions. Some experts have raised various sensitive mysteries about the painting such as reflections in its globe. It conduction also came in for criticism. The walnut panel base was “worm tunneled” and at some stage it was apparently split in half. The work has been repainted many times, making it hard to discern the original before restoration.
The auction also included Andy Warhol’s “Sixty Last Suppers,” which sold for $60,875,000. The work’s wide $55-75 million estimate encouraged lower bids to get going.
From a distance, Warhol’s acrylic and silkscreen-on-linen work from 1996 looks like a pile of rectangular, gray building blocks. Get closer to this wall-sized work (about 28 feet by 10 feet) and the composition becomes clearer: The images are inspired by Leonardo’s mural masterpiece. Warhol had been commissioned to produce the piece to mark 500 years since Leonardo’s death. Rather than work with the original, he used modern reproductions and found dozens of versions – some with the characters in different positions or with different background details.
Despite these mega works, it was just the second highest total ever for a various owner Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale at Christie’s. A total of 49 of the 58 lots sold, a rate of 84% and 94% by value.
There were 14 records for Adam Pendelton, Philippe Parreno, Kerry James Marshall and more. Franz Kline’s monumental “Light Mechanic” realized $20 million as part of the Eppler Family Collection which has now achieved a running total of $71.4 million.
LONDON — He is a little-known Saudi prince from a remote branch of the royal family, with no history as a major art collector, and no publicly known source of great wealth. But the prince, Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud, is the mystery buyer of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting “Salvator Mundi,” which fetched a record $450.3 million at auction last month, documents show.
The revelation that Prince Bader is the purchaser, according to documents reviewed by The New York Times, links one of the most captivating mysteries of the art world with palace intrigues in Saudi Arabia that are shaking the region. Prince Bader splurged on this controversial and decidedly un-Islamic portrait of Christ at a time when most of the Saudi Arabian elite, including members of the royal family, are cowering under a sweeping crackdown against corruption and self-enrichment.
As it happens, Prince Bader is a friend and associate of the leader of the purge: the country’s 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
The $450.3 million purchase is the clearest indication yet of the selective nature of the crackdown. The crown prince’s supporters portray him as a reformer, but the campaign of extrajudicial arrests has been unprecedented for modern Saudi Arabia, worrying Western governments about political stability in the world’s largest oil producer, alarming rights advocates and investors about the rule of law, and roiling energy markets.
Prince Mohammed’s consolidation of power has upended decades of efforts by previous Saudi rulers to build loyalty and consensus within the royal family. And even before the disclosure of the record-breaking purchase in a New York art auction by one of his associates, Prince Mohammed’s extravagance had already raised eyebrows, most notably with the impulse purchase two years ago in the south of France of a Russian vodka titan’s 440-foot yacht, for half a billion dollars.
A spokeswoman for Christie’s, the auction house that sold “Salvator Mundi,” said it did not comment on the identities of any buyer or seller without their permission. Prince Badar did not respond to a detailed request for comment. But as The Times was pressing for a response on Wednesday, the newly opened branch of the Louvre in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, tweeted that the painting “is coming to Louvre Abu Dhabi.” The Saudi crown prince is a close ally of his counterpart in Abu Dhabi.
Documents provided from inside Saudi Arabia and reviewed by The Times reveal that representatives for the buyer, Prince Bader, did not present him as a bidder until the day before the sale. He was such an unknown figure that executives at Christie’s were scrambling to establish his identity and his financial means. And even after he had provided a $100 million deposit to qualify for the auction, the Christie’s lawyers conducting due diligence on potential bidders pressed him with two pointed questions:
Where did he get the money? And what was his relationship with the Saudi ruler, King Salman?
Real estate, Prince Bader replied, without elaborating. He was just one of 5,000 princes, he told the auction house, according to documents and people involved.
Less than two weeks earlier, on Nov. 4, the crown prince had ordered the crackdown on more than 200 of the richest Saudi princes, businessmen and government officials. The kingdom had been squeezed by years of low oil prices, and Prince Mohammed was seeking to recover hundreds of billions of dollars in alleged illicit gains.
“Salvator Mundi” represented a major prestige purchase in the art world, if a controversial one. Some experts questioned whether the painting was a true Leonardo. Some were simply unimpressed. The painting’s previous owner, Dmitry E. Rybolovlev, is a Russian billionaire who bought a $95 million Florida home from Donald J. Trump nearly a decade ago. Mr. Rybolovlev had paid $127.5 million for the painting in 2013 — less than a third of its sale price last month — and he is still locked in litigation with the dealer who sold it to him over that lofty price, among other transactions.
For Prince Bader, paying such an unprecedented sum for a painting of Christ also risked offending the religious sensibilities of his Muslim countrymen. Muslims teach that Jesus was not the savior but a prophet. And most Muslims — especially the clerics of Saudi Arabia — consider the artistic depiction of any of the prophets to be a form of sacrilege.
Prince Bader comes from a lesser branch of the royal family, the Farhan, who are descended from a brother of an 18th-century Saudi ruler. They do not trace their lineage to the founder of the modern kingdom, King Abdulaziz ibn Saud. But Prince Bader is a contemporary of Prince Mohammed. They attended King Saud University in Riyadh around the same time, if not together. And after King Salman, now 81, took the throne in 2015 and appointed Prince Mohammed to run much of the government, he named Prince Bader to high-profile positions, including one closely linked to the family.
The Salman branch of the royal family has traditionally controlled the Saudi Research and Marketing Group, which publishes the Pan-Arab newspaper Al Sharq Al Awsat and other publications. After nearly 30 years of passing the chairmanship of the group from one Salman to another, King Salman and Prince Mohammed instead put Prince Bader in the post.
Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud
In July, King Salman also named Prince Bader governor of a newly formed commission, led by Prince Mohammed, to develop the province of Al Ola, which contains an archaeological site that the crown prince hopes to turn into a tourist destination.
A government statement about the commission noted that the development of the province was important to the crown prince’s plans for the kingdom, known as Saudi Vision 2030, and last week the Saudi news network Al Arabiya reported that Prince Mohammed had posed for selfies there with locals while touring the desert on a four-wheeled buggy.
Prince Bader sat on the board of an energy company that did business in Saudi Arabia, Energy Holdings International, according to its website, and a short biography there describes him as “one of Saudi Arabia’s youngest entrepreneurs.” (It was not immediately clear if the company is still operating.)
According to the biography, he is also “chairman of the founding committee” of a local consortium that won a license from the kingdom to build a fiber-optic network, in a “strategic partnership” with Verizon. It is common for well-connected Saudi princes to profit by providing entry to the kingdom for international companies.
He is also described as one of the founders of a large recycling and waste-management business in Saudi Arabia. As for real estate, which Prince Bader described to Christie’s as the source of his money, the biography says he “has also been active in real estate projects in Saudi Arabia, Dubai and the rest of the Middle East over five years,” including in partnership with “large reputed companies.” The date of the biography could not be determined.
Prince Bader appears to have worked with Prince Mohammed on at least one grand project for his own leisure, as well. Together, the two approached Brent Thompson Architects, a firm based in Los Angeles, to design an elaborate resort complex near Jidda, according to a description of the project on the group’s website.
It consisted of as many as seven palaces for princes in the Salman branch of the family, around an artificial body of water in the shape of a flower. “Petals of this tropical flower formed a series of private coves, each the home of an individual palace, its own private beaches, guesthouse, gardens and water sports facilities,” according to the description on the firm’s website.
When the bidding opened at Christie’s in New York on Nov. 15, Prince Bader participated by telephone and was represented in the room by Alex Rotter, co-chairman of postwar and contemporary art at the auction house. At least three other anonymous bidders were competing by telephone through representatives in the room. Major dealers and collectors from across the art world had gathered to watch.
Bidding opened with a $100 million offer from an unknown collector, setting a floor for the auction. The bids started jumping in increments of $10 million, and almost immediately reached $225 million, far surpassing the previous record for a sale at auction: the $179.4 million paid for Picasso’s “Women of Algiers” at Christie’s in 2015.
The price climbed further, in $5 million steps, reaching $260 million less than two minutes after the auction began. Then, only two anonymous bidders were left, Prince Bader and another person represented in the room by François de Poortere, the head of old master paintings at Christie’s.
The price rose slowly for a while, by increments of as little as $2 million. But after the bidding reached $330 million, Prince Bader began to raise the price by increasingly large amounts. The room erupted in gasps when he offered $350 million. “Looking for another bid, please, Francois, at $350 million,” the auctioneer said, and the crowd laughed at his audacity.
Yet the bidding continued until, about 19 minutes after the auction began, Prince Bader put it away with a $30 million jump, to $400 million. The final $450 million price includes additional fees paid by the buyer.
The prince had told Christie’s that he intended to pay in one lump sum upon completion of the sale. But in light of the unexpectedly high sale price, a contract was drawn up specifying six monthly installments. Five are for $58,385,416.67.
The last installment is due on May 14. It is two cents less: $58,385,416.65.
By CHRIS CIRILLO on December 6, 2017. Photo by Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times. Watch in Times Video »