Controversial Da Vinci Painting Breaks Record at Auction

The painting is in rough shape – its surface worn from years of neglect and its backing ravaged by worms. Art scholars and critics have questioned its origins, and billionaires have faced off in court over it. But now Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” is the most expensive painting ever sold, fetching more than $450 million at a packed Christie’s auction Wednesday night. The winning bid surpassed any sum previously paid for a work of art sold at auction by more than $100 million. The new owner remains a mystery.

The capacity crowd in Christie’s Manhattan auction room reacted audibly as the bids jumped in increments of $15 million. Then $30 million. Veteran sales agents and respected art dealers pulled out cell phones to record the historic moment. By the time the auctioneer slammed down his gavel, the winning bid stood at $400 million. Fees paid to the auction house bring the total sale price to $450.3 million.

The record sale came as a shock to many in the art world.

“I didn’t think it would sell at all,” said Arne Glimcher, a well-known art dealer and owner of the Pace Gallery in New York.

Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi,” which sold for $450 million at auction Wednesday night. (Photo courtesy of Christies)

Glimcher was hardly alone in his skepticism about the painting’s prospects at auction. Its poor condition, along with questions about its authenticity and a down market for Renaissance masters, made it generally unattractive to institutional buyers such as museums and serious collectors. When “Salvator Mundi” was last on the market, only one museum made a bid, according to reports.

With these factors in mind, Christie’s had aggressively marketed “Salvator Mundi” as ‘The Last da Vinci,” a slogan that referenced the piece’s discovery in 2005, as well as its status as the only privately owned painting by the artist. The depiction of Jesus as “Savior of the World”   is one of only 16 known paintings attributed to the Renaissance master.

The Christie’s campaign was unusual in that it targeted the general public over serious collectors, but the messaging seemed to hit its mark. Tens of thousands of visitors viewed the painting on its marketing tour to London, Hong Kong, San Francisco and New York, according to Christies. Long lines formed outside Christie’s Rockefeller Plaza location to view the painting in the week before the sale.

When it was announced that viewing was closing for the last time on Wednesday afternoon, many of those stuck in line pushed against barricades blocking the gallery entrance trying to get past security guards. One woman burst into tears.

While “Salvator Mundi” may have stirred public emotion, many in the art community were less impressed.

“Face it, it’s fake,” art critic Jerry Saltz tweeted hours before the auction was set to begin. A day before the sale, he slammed the painting and Christie’s marketing practices in a Vulture review. Saltz called the auction “an irresponsible knowing flimflam that defrauds a mass audience into thinking it is ‘appreciating’ an old master, when it’s all smokey spectacle and mirrors.”

The questions surrounding the origins of “Salvator Mundi” trace back to its rediscovery. Initially thought to be a  later copy of one of  Da Vinci’s works, it was purchased at auction for less than $10,000 in 2005. The piece had been damaged by extensive cleaning, and the original image had been painted over by additions from later artists. Restoration revealed the possibility that it could be an original Leonardo, as Da Vinci’s works are known in the art world.

While Christie’s asserts complete consensus that the piece is truly a Da Vinci, many experts share Saltz’s doubts.

If no museums acknowledge being among the bidders on Wednesday night, it sends a message that they do not have a great deal of confidence in the painting’s authenticity, Joseph Manca, a professor of art history at Rice University and an expert on Renaissance art said in an interview before the auction. “If we get to see who’s bidding on it, that will speak volumes.”

Christie’s went to great lengths to promote the painting outside the normal market for 16th century art. Instead of offering it with other works from the period, it was auctioned  alongside works by modern and contemporary artists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol.

Christie’s marketing also emphasized the character of Leonardo da Vinci and the story behind the piece’s discovery as much as the merits of the art itself, presenting it as a long-lost treasure from the past.

“The painting has all the elements of a good narrative, with being supposedly lost then discovered.” said Diane Bodart, a professor of Italian Renaissance art history at Columbia University. “Plus with the Dan Brown, the ‘Da Vinci Code’ books and the movies, you can see why it got all that attention.”

The painting’s record sale price likely comes as a vindication to the seller, Russian billionaire Dmitry E. Rybolovlev. Rybolovlev purchased “Salvator Mundi”  for $127.5 million from a Swiss art dealer in 2013, not realizing the dealer had paid only $80 million for it the year before. Rybolovlev accused the dealer of fraud, leading to a web of international litigation that crossed continents and led to the resignation of Monaco’s justice minister on accusations of corruption.

The intrigue and spy-novel elements of the painting’s journey to auction may have bolstered its status as “the holy grail of art,” as Christie’s promotional literature called it. Such hype created a perfect storm for a record sale, according to Rice professor Manca.

“It’s a phenomenon that’s likely never going to be repeated,” he said.  “It’s unheard of, really.”