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New York Times / Life - Entertain

Opinion | The da Vinci Lode

The sale of Leonardo’s “Salvator Mundi” for almost a half-billion dollars says more about grotesque financial inequality than about art.


Wren McDonald

Was it the artistic power of the work, casting the aesthetic spell known as Stendhal syndrome over some powerful tycoon?

Was it the rarity of what Christie’s promoted as “The Last da Vinci”?

Or was it what Marx called “commodity fetish,” driven to new heights in the rarefied strata of the hyperrich?

Even in a business in which prices have soared in recent years, the sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” at Christie’s in New York for $400 million, plus $50.3 million in commissions, has everyone, experts and commoners alike, groping for explanations. This was more than double the previous record for art sold at auction, $179.4 million for a Picasso in 2015, and five times more than the highest price ever paid for an old master, $76.7 million for a Rubens in 2002.

“Salvator Mundi” is rare; on that there is no debate. There are only 15 other known Leonardos, all in museums. And it has royal provenance: Commissioned by King Louis XII of France, owned by Charles I and Charles II of England, the painting passed into obscurity for three centuries until it was “rediscovered” in 2005.

The marketing by Christie’s was prodigious. Pre-sale viewings in Hong Kong, London, San Francisco and New York drew 27,000 people, and an outside agency was hired to create a dramatic video chronicling the “real-life emotions” of selected viewers. To heighten excitement, the marketers referred to the work as “the male Mona Lisa” and to the artist as “da Vinci,” a name with greater public recognition than the “Leonardo” commonly used by scholars.

Whoever bought the painting must be possessed of supreme self-confidence, for there are also reasons collectors might have shied away. Though the work is generally accepted as a real Leonardo, doubts linger among some scholars as to its authenticity. Why, for example, are the images passing through the crystal orb in Jesus’ hand not inverted, as a keen scientific observer like Leonardo would surely have noted? Moreover, the work has been marred by repeated repaintings and restorations. To the Times critic Jason Farago, it was “a proficient but not especially distinguished religious picture from turn-of-the-16th-century Lombardy, put through a wringer of restorations.”

The more recent history of the painting is also murky. It was put on sale by the family trust of Dmitry Rybolovlev, a Russian oligarch living in Monaco who is involved in a lawsuit against the Swiss dealer who over the years helped him amass a huge art collection, including the Leonardo. (The Rybolovlev trust also bought an 18-bedroom mansion called Maison de l’Amitié from Donald Trump in 2008.)

We may someday learn the identity and motives of the buyer, though in the secretive world of art collection that is not a certainty. But even if the motive is a pure love of art, the price paid for the Leonardo testified to something gone wrong in the balance of value and values. It reflects a world in which the minute sliver of the obscenely rich see nothing untoward in parking hundreds of millions of dollars on a rare but unexceptional painting that may well spend the next several years in a tax-free storage facility.

That the subject is the “Savior of the World” makes it all the more lamentable.

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