If the past is any indication, Wednesday’s anonymous buyer didn’t make a smart financial investment. After the family trust of the Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev purchased Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of Christ, Salvator Mundi (c.1500), from the Swiss dealer Yves Bouvier for USD$127.5 million in 2014, Rybolovlev alleged that he’d been vastly overcharged and filed a lawsuit in Monaco. Before that, at an estate auction in 2005, the painting was presumed to be a copy and was bought for under $10,000.
But on Wednesday night, at a star-studded and cleverly hyped contemporary auction at Christie’s in New York, Salvator Mundi sold to an anonymous party over the telephone for an astonishing and record-shattering $450.3 million, including the buyer’s premium.
The art world was shocked and, justifiably, confused by the price. Thomas P. Campbell, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, took to Instagram: ‘450 million dollars?! Hope the buyer understands conservation issues …’ Brett Gorvy, the former head of the postwar & contemporary art department at Christie’s, retorted in Campbell’s comments section: ‘Would love to see the condition report on the Mona Lisa or The Last Supper …’
But Gorvy, as clever a specialist – now dealer – as he is, held a weak hand and a facile argument. Salvator Mundi is nowhere near as good of a painting as da Vinci’s The Last Supper (c.1495) or Mona Lisa (1503). In fact, Salvator Mundi is – by the standards of da Vinci – rather boring.
In 2007, after Robert Simon, a specialist in Old Masters, confirmed the painting’s authenticity, Dianne Dwyer Modestini, a renowned restorer of Old Masters and 19th century paintings, was hired to restore Salvator Mundi, taking nearly six years to complete the process. And yet, as admirable of a job as Modestini did, the problem with Salvator Mundi is not with its state of preservation and restoration so much as with the underlying painting itself.
‘Even making allowances for its extremely poor state of preservation, it is a curiously unimpressive composition and it is hard to believe that Leonardo himself was responsible for anything so dull,’ wrote Charles Hope, an expert in 15th and 16th-century Italian painting, in The New York Review of Books in 2012, when the painting was on show at the National Gallery in London.
The painting doesn’t shimmer with energy; it’s oddly dark when seen in person, and the figure of Christ appears flattened, more an icon painting one might find in the back room of Paris’ Musée de Cluny or in a far-off medieval wing of the Met than what one comes to expect upon hearing the name ‘da Vinci.’
But that name. The name of a polymath genius and a star of Western civilization, revered for the better half of a millennium. A name that drew art-collecting titans like Steve Cohen, Eli Broad, and Larry Gagosian (who, according to Bloomberg’s Katya Kazakina, could only react with a ‘Jesus Christ’ when Jussi Pylkkanen, the famed auctioneer, struck the final gavel). A name that brought Leonardo DiCaprio – close friends with Christie’s superstar contemporary specialist Loïc Gouzer – to watch from a skybox. A name that brought Patti Smith to a seat in the front row.