When Willem de Kooning’s Interchange was sold for $300 million in 2015, many art lovers started wondering: “what price would a masterpiece by an old master fetch if sold?” A logical question to which it was impossible to find an answer…until a couple of weeks ago. For a decade now, the most expensive paintings ever sold featured artworks by Impressionists, Post-Impressionists and Abstract Expressionists (the usual suspects: Gauguin, Cezanne, Pollock and company).
Few Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces are owned by individuals, and even fewer could be offered for sale. Such was the case with Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi’, commissioned by King Louis XII of France around the year 1500. The painting was eclipsed by other masterpieces realized by Da Vinci like The Mona Lisa, the Last Supper and Virgin of the Rocks, specially that it was ‘lost’ and forgotten for centuries, until it resurfaced to the public in 2011 at the National Gallery Museum in London.
Auctioned last week in New York, Salvator Mundi sold for $450 million (auction house fees included), setting a record that might stand the test of time for quite some time. The painting shows Christ holding a transparent crystal orb in one hand, while the other hand blesses the viewer. The crystal orb looks nothing like our world, for he said “My kingdom is not of this world.” His fingers, hairlocks and face seem all seem to dissolve into the surroundings, an exquisite demonstration of Da Vinci’s perfection of the sfumato technique. Then comes the famous trompe-l’œil, a coessential Da Vinci trick of composition: is Christ smiling to us?
One cannot possible ignore the intense blue color of the Christ’s robe in this painting. Known as ‘ultramarine’, this color was obtained using the powder of lapis lazuli, a semiprecious stone which, at the time, was imported from Afghanistan! The name ultramarine alludes to the fact that it came from a faraway country through Venetian and Genoese ships. In comparison to cobalt or azurite, ultramarine produced from lapis lazuli does not fade or change color.
Attributing Salvator Mundi to Da Vinci is not universally accepted. Da Vinci never signed his works, and less than twenty paintings can be attributed to him with relative certainty, most of them Madonnas or portraits. A polymath in every sense of the world, Da Vinci had a reputation for not finishing much of what he had begun. Painter, sculptor, engineer, mathematician and inventor, his genius seems to have kept him constantly distracted by new ideas, but some of his experiments proved catastrophic, using painting techniques that proved unstable and unsuitable for the supports to which they were applied.
Why would someone pay 450 million dollars for a Da Vinci? For one thing, the ‘discovery’ of Salvator Mundi sent strong shockwaves across the art community around the world, for all of Da Vinci’s works are in museums around the world (the Uffizi, the Louvre, the Hermitage, etc.) and none of his works are offered for sale. We would never really know the exact motives of the buyer. Is it a true passion for Da Vinci and his art? Is it a decision motivated by religious zeal and an admiration for the representation of Jesus Christ in the painting? Is it an investment where the painting serves as store of value? Big art auctions are difficult to expect, let alone explain. Art, when traded as a commodity, follows the market laws of supply and demand, and yet, it has its own peculiarities. Pricing is not based on labor hours, but rather on a complex set of values, some intrinsic, some perceived, that involve the sentimental value, the halo effect of the artist, the historical value of the artwork, its aesthetic quality, to the end of a very long list. Not even the most experienced and reputed auctioneers would have guessed that Salvator Mundi would fetch such a price! Now the question becomes: when would that record be broken again?
So far, the top five most expensive paintings ever sold are:
1. Salvator Mundi by Da Vinci – $ 450 million in 2017
2. Interchange by Willem de Kooning – $ 303 million in 2015
3. Card Players by Paul Cezanne – $ 266 million in 2011
4. When will you marry? by Paul Gauguin – $ 210 million in 2014
5. 17A by Jackson Pollock – $ 200 million in 2015
Click any image below to enlarge it.