Da Vinci sells for $450mn in auction record: Christie’s

by Thomas URBAIN / Jennie MATTHEW A 500-year-old painting believed to be by Leonardo da Vinci sold for $450.3 million in New York on Wednesday, smashing a new world record for the most expensive work of art sold at auction, Christie's said.

The stunning price for “Salvator Mundi,” which depicts Jesus Christ, more than doubled the previous record of $179.4 million paid for Pablo Picasso’s “The Women of Algiers (Version O)” in New York in 2015.

Lost for years only to resurface at a regional US auction in 2005, Christie’s says it is one of fewer than 20 Da Vinci paintings generally accepted as being from the Renaissance master’s own hand.

All the others are held in museum or institutional collections.

Dated by Christie’s to around 1500, the oil on panel sold after 19 minutes of frenzied bidding in a historic sale, the star lot of the November art season in the US financial capital.

The price throws shade at its Russian billionaire seller, who has sued a Swiss art dealer in Monaco for allegedly swindling him into parting with $127.5 million for the work in 2013.

The exact value of private sales are often not revealed. But a Willem de Kooning painting and a Gauguin were reportedly sold separately for $300 million each in 2015, according to US media reports.

The Da Vinci depicts a half-length figure of Jesus, holding a crystal orb in his left hand as he raises his right in benediction.

It was an incongruous solitary Old Master in the flagship November postwar and contemporary sale, which attracts the biggest spenders in the high-octane world of international billionaire art collectors.

– Controversy -Auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen opened bidding at $75 million, pulling in 45 bids from clients on the phone and in the room. 

Whoops and applause rippled through the packed room of nearly 1,000 spectators as the bids quickly escalated into unchartered territory, coming down to two head-to-head rivals on the telephone.

The identity of the buyer was not immediately disclosed.

Pylkkanen eventually hammered the painting at $450 million. The final price came to $450.3 million including the buyer’s premium.

Its seller Dmitry Rybolovlev, the boss of soccer club AS Monaco, accuses Yves Bouvier of conning him out of hundreds of million dollars by overcharging him on a string of deals, and pocketing the difference.

“Salvator Mundi” had been at the heart of that battle. It was not immediately clear what impact the sale would have on court proceedings.

Bouvier bought the work at Sotheby’s for $80 million in 2013. He resold it within days to the Russian tycoon, for $127.5 million, netting a $47.5 million profit. Bouvier has denied any wrongdoing.

The auction house, which declined to comment on the controversy, had valued the painting pre-sale at $100 million.

– ‘Holy Grail’ -Nearly 30,000 people flocked to see the work in Christie’s showrooms in Hong Kong, London, San Francisco and New York, the first time the painting was shown in Asia or the United States.

The work was exhibited at The National Gallery in London in 2011, after years of research trying to document its authenticity after it was found, mistaken for a copy, in a US auction in 2005.

Before that it had disappeared for years, previously fetching a mere 45 pounds ($60 in today’s money) in 1958 as a believed copy.

Christie’s said pre-sale that the painting’s rarity was difficult to overstate. For years it was presumed to have been destroyed, emerging only in 2005 when it was purchased from a US estate.

“For auction specialists, this is pretty much the Holy Grail,” Loic Gouzer, co-chairman of Christie’s Americas postwar and contemporary art department, has said. “It doesn’t really get better than that.”  

Christie’s says the painting belonged to England’s Charles I and Charles II, and probably remained at Whitehall during the reign of his successor, James II, before passing to his mistress.

It subsequently disappeared. There is speculation that da Vinci made it for the French royal family and that it was taken to England by Queen Henrietta Maria when she married King Charles I in 1625.

Christie’s says that of the roughly 20 known contemporary copies of the Mundi, some by pupils or followers of the artist, none is of sufficient quality to support an attribution to the master himself. DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options