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What to make of the $450 million Leonardo da Vinci?

Fotini Xydas

By Fotini Xydas

Art Advisor, Art Advisory & Finance

February 8, 2018

In November 2017, the world was stunned by Christie’s sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s 500 year-old Salvator Mundi for $450.3 million, a record price for any work of art ever sold, reportedly purchased for the Louvre Abu Dhabi. The sale of the Leonardo more than doubled the former auction record price of $179.4 million held by Pablo Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O), and surpassed the private sale price of Willem de Kooning’s Interchange to Kenneth Griffin for a reported $300 million, both 2015 transactions. Multiple bidders chased the Leonardo in a 19-minute competition, with 2 contenders climbing past $260 million. After much speculation, the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism came forth as the buyer, on behalf of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and confirmed in a statement issued by Christie’s.[i] Public media reports further suggest that the painting may have been purchased by the new 32 year-old crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Bin Salman, through a liaison as a gift from Saudi Arabia to the museum and The United Arab Emirates, with whom it recently strengthened diplomatic ties.

 

The fervent controversy and press surrounding the Leonardo ranged in topic from the outlandish price, the merit of the painting given concerns about its authenticity, compromised condition, and complex history, the mystery shrouding its buyer, to the ripple effects expected from the sale on the overall art market. Despite the incessant banter surrounding the Salvator Mundi, there is no question of the painting’s extraordinary rarity, importance and allure. Christie’s mounted an unprecedented marketing campaign for the painting, employing an outside marketing agency for the first time, complete with guest-celebrity videos, a worldwide tour of the Leonardo, and creation of an exclusive, spectacle-inducing environment for viewing the lit painting in a small dark room that resulted in crowds waiting over an hour to catch a glimpse. The buyer, reported to have been the new prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed Bin Salman, who bought it as a gift to The United Arab Emirates, capitalized on the hype and attention—owning the world’s most expensive artwork would only add to the work’s aura, as well as the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s attraction as a cultural destination. Surpassing Qatar’s $250 million purchase of Paul Cezanne’s The Card Players was surely a bonus in the UAE’s quest to eclipse its neighbor, with whom both the UAE and Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties this past summer, as a world-renowned art mecca.[ii] The UAE has been positioning itself to become an art destination, having partnered with the Louvre Museum in Paris to utilize the museum’s name in the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which opened just 4 days prior to the record-breaking sale, and where the Salvator Mundi will now form the Mona Lisa’s counterpart in the Middle East. Notwithstanding its flashy price, the Leonardo is a reminder of art’s unique and powerful symbolic value.

   

Much has been made of the da Vinci sale and its anticipated effects on the rest of the art market. Just like the ever-climbing, record-breaking trophy works that have come before it, the Leonardo is an outlier that bears little relation to the values of other artworks. The art market is composed of much more than just the ultra-top tier, with numerous sub-markets operating independently, occasionally intersecting. Each artwork is unique and subject to a range of considerations in determining its value. That being said, while we do not expect the Leonardo sale to have a profound effect, it is expected to encourage several trends. Firstly, it may move the needle on prices for so-called masterpieces, as well as lure more such works to make their way to auction, rather than being sold privately via a dealer or gallery. The Leonardo certainly made the case for mounting largescale marketing campaigns to sell art, and auction alone allows for such wide-ranging publicity.  Art continues to grow closer to the luxury goods industry, and we can expect a continued emphasis on marketing and branding given the sale’s huge success.[iii] The sale will inspire greater discussion about art as an asset and investment, though unfortunately all may not understand the market’s intricacies and pitfalls, and the critical need for guidance. Finally, the Leonardo may ignite some much-wanted momentum into the field of Old Masters, which has seen bursts of activity over the past year, as well as a continued look back at great masters throughout the history of art.

   Source: Christie's Images Ltd. 2018

 

 

[i] Eileen Kinsella, “Who Actually Owns ‘Salvator Mundi’? Now, the Louvre Abu Dhabi Says it Does,” Artnet News, December 8, 2017, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/louvre-abu-dhabi-says-it-owns-da-vinci-salvator-mundi-one-day-after-saudi-crown-prince-is-named-1173938.

[ii] Declan Walsh, “Tiny, Wealthy Qatar Goes Its Own Way, and Pays for It,” The New York Times, January 21, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/22/world/middleeast/qatar-saudi-emir-boycott.html.

[iii] Georgina Adam, “What Will 2018 Hold for the Art Market?,” The Artnewspaper, January 3, 2018, https://www.theartnewspaper.com/analysis/what-will-2018-hold-for-the-art-market.

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