Leonardo da Vinci Painting Sells for $450.3 Million, Shattering Auction Highs

After 19 minutes of dueling, with four bidders on the telephone and one in the room, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” sold on Wednesday night for $450.3 million with fees, shattering the high for any work of art sold at auction. It far surpassed Picasso’s “Women of Algiers,” which fetched $179.4 million at Christie’s in May 2015. The buyer was not immediately disclosed.

There were gasps throughout the sale, as the bids climbed by tens of millions up to $225 million, by fives up to $260 million, and then by twos. As the bidding slowed, and a buyer pondered the next multi-million-dollar increment, Jussi Pylkkanen, the auctioneer, said, “It’s an historic moment; we’ll wait.”

Toward the end, Alex Rotter, Christie’s co-chairman of postwar and contemporary art, who represented a buyer on the phone, made two big jumps to shake off one last rival bid from Francis de Poortere, Christie’s head of old master paintings.

The price is all the more remarkable at a time when the old masters market is contracting, because of limited supply and collectors’ penchant for contemporary art.

And to critics, the astronomical sale attests to something else — the degree to which salesmanship has come to drive and dominate the conversation about art and its value. Some art experts pointed to the painting’s damaged condition and its questionable authenticity
“This was a thumping epic triumph of branding and desire over connoisseurship and reality,” said Todd Levin, a New York art adviser.

Christie’s marketing campaign was perhaps unprecedented in the art world; it was the first time the auction house went so far as to enlist an outside agency to advertise the work. Christie’s also released a video that included top executives pitching the painting to Hong Kong clients as “the holy grail of our business” and likening it to “the discovery of a new planet.” Christie’s called the work “the Last da Vinci,” the only known painting by the Renaissance master still in a private collection (some 15 others are in museums).

“It’s been a brilliant marketing campaign,” said Alan Hobart, director of the Pyms Gallery in London, who has acquired museum-quality artworks across a range of historical periods for the British businessman and collector Graham Kirkham. “This is going to be the future.”

There was a palpable air of anticipation at Christie’s Rockefeller Center headquarters as the art market’s major players filed into the sales room. The capacity crowd included top dealers like Larry Gagosian, David Zwirner and Marc Payot of Hauser & Wirth. Major collectors had traveled here for the sale, among them Eli Broad and Michael Ovitz from Los Angeles; Martin Margulies from Miami; and Stefan Edlis from Chicago. Christie’s had produced special red paddles for those bidding on the Leonardo, and many of its specialists taking bids on the phone wore elegant black.

Earlier, 27,000 people had lined up at pre-auction viewings in Hong Kong, London, San Francisco and New York to glimpse the painting of Christ as “Savior of the World.” Members of the public — indeed, even many cognoscenti — cared little if at all whether the painting might have been executed in part by studio assistants; whether Leonardo had actually made the work himself; or how much of the canvas had been repainted and restored. They just wanted to see a masterwork that dates from about 1500 and was rediscovered in 2005.

“There is extraordinary consensus it is by Leonardo,” said Nicholas Hall, the former co-chairman of old master paintings at Christie’s, who now runs his own Manhattan gallery. “This is the most important old master painting to have been sold at auction in my lifetime.”