In the Frame: Salvator Mundi

 Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi (circa 1500) Courtesy of Christie's, 2017

Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi (circa 1500) Courtesy of Christie's, 2017


As the gavel struck on Wednesday at Christie's, New York, history was made as a new record was set. Salvator Mundi, a painting by Leonardo da Vinci depicting a serene looking Christ draped in blue and holding in one hand, a crystal orb, symbol of Christianity's power; the other hand raised in benediction. Portrayed with a misty, delicate sfumato of smoke-hazed tones, the 'saviour of the world' gazes unwavering out toward the viewer. This Christ, manifesting five hundred years before us, seems to hold a world of secrets. It is one of some twenty surviving paintings by Leonardo da Vinci in existence, and one of the last by Leonardo to be held in private hands.

As the auction room at Christie's settled in for the ride, bidding for Salvator Mundi (lot 9) was first announced as 'selling' at $70m, which thought represents the level of the guarantee. It then rose swiftly to the high $100m, before, to audible gasps in the room, the picture broke through the $200m mark. The raising of special red paddles from collectors in the room then ceased. Thereafter the battle was played out by two anonymous phone bidders who continued to place unilateral bids way above the usual bidding increments. With bids reaching $370m, the final gambit was to announce a bid for $400m, which shattering all other records; within the space of nineteen minutes, the hammer came down. The final figure of $450.3m includes the premiums paid by the buyer to Christie's for its services. 


Watch the moment Leonardo da Vinci's Salvador Mundi sold for a record-breaking price at Christie's, New York.


Achieving $400 million at auction, Salvator Mundi is the highest selling work of art in the world. This was more than double the previous record for art sold at auction - Pablo Picasso's Les femmes d'Alger (1955) for $179.4 million in May 2015. Within the field of Old Masters, it achieved five times more than the previous record, which was held by Sir Peter Paul Rubens' The Massacre of the Innocents (1609-16011) for $76.7 million in 2002. It supersedes the record for a painting ever sold privately too. In September 2015, abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning's painting Interchange (1955) sold for a reported $300m in a private deal between renowned collector David Geffen and Ken Griffin; including Jackson Pollock's Number 17A (1948) for $200m, the transaction amounted to $500m in total.

'[Leonardo da Vinci] was so influential that every artist will start by looking at his art. So in the hands and brain of every artist is Da Vinci. And it’s so contemporary [...] It never gets old.'
Loic Gouzer, Christie's co-chairman of post-war and contemporary art

A great deal of the evening's success has been attributed to the unorthodox decision made by Christie's Loic Gouzer to include Leonardo's painting in the Post-War and Contemporary evening sale. At the forefront of the concept of 'themed' sales, Mr. Gouzer appreciates how art informs other art by presenting the relational aesthetics of da Vinci's Salvator Mundi alongside Andy Warhol's Sixty Last Suppers. It appears to be the perfect storm of the transmutation of artwork to celebrity icon. The result is a vast inflation of prices and its effect upon the art market in the way that it art today is experienced.

'I thought it was the greatest piece of auctioneering in modern times. It certainly helped that Christie’s pitched it in that new and exciting way. The old masters market can be a bit of a viper’s nest, there’s a lot of thumb-sucking that goes on in that environment, so they cleverly tried to take it out of that environment and it’s definitely paid off.'
- Dr. Bendor Grosvenor, art dealer and art historian

Leading economist in the art market, Clare McAndrew has highlighted how the sale of Salvator Mundi, 'while being interesting to watch, doesn’t reflect the wider reality of the art market'. As she told the Guardian: 'These things are real outliers, and this is an extreme example. The top end of the market is heated right now but it’s not crazy heady booming times like it was in 2007 or even in 2014 when the top end was quite manic. But when there’s an artwork that brings together clever marketing with scarcity and a little bit of competitiveness between a couple of billionaires, it’s a perfect art market storm.'

Marketing of the painting has been prodigious - sending the painting across the world to be viewed pre-sale in Hong Kong, London, San Francisco and New York. Crowds of some 27,000 people gathered for the once in a lifetime opportunity to view the work of art. While collectors were lining up around the corner, dramatic films were made with theatrical aplomb to chronicle the 'real-life emotions' of viewers. Yet despite all the spin, the auction success of Salvator Mundi was also rooted in the simple, appealing beauty of the painting itself. As art dealer Philip Mould has stated: 'This is a very secular image of Christ. There’s no cross, there’s no halo, and also there’s something sexily quite ambiguous about his appearance, a slightly gender fluid aspect to it that makes it very zeitgeisty. People could imagine it next to a piece of Impressionist art or a Jackson Pollock or an Andy Warhol,' he added. 'It is the face of today.'


Watch art critic and presenter Alistair Sooke guide you through Leonardo da Vinci's painting Salvator Mundi. 


There have been a few rumbling doubts about the authenticity of Salvator Mundi as a painting by Leonardo da Vinci, but a remarkable consensus of Renaissance scholars have stuck their heads above the parapet to say it is genuine. Indeed, after its inclusion in the major Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at the National Gallery, London, in 2011, many experts agreed with the attribution. Even so, the condition of the painting has been called into question by art critic Jerry Saltz, among others, with reports of it being 'over-cleaned' and questions of the painting's chequered provenance history. The real issue regarding the painting's validity seems to be a question of education: 'All Old Masters have had work done to them', art dealer Rafael Valls has stated. 'They’ve all been scrubbed and cleaned, but when you think about a particular painting and say, "Oh, it’s by Titian, but a quarter of it was recreated by other restorers," it still is what it is.'

Given the rarity of paintings by Leonardo da Vinci in the world, the market tolerance regarding issues of restoration and condition is much higher. As dealer Johnny van Haeften says, you have to put a condition aside to a certain extent: 'Of course it's not perfect, and of course, it's not mint. But can you get another one?' Those in the art world who dismiss its authenticity, dealers say, are simply transferring criteria used to judge contemporary art onto old masters. Meanwhile, the current market conditions is less of an issue than it used to be, with the emphasis more on the image and big name 'brand' artists. 

Conservator Dianne Modestini, widely regarded as best in the field, worked on restoring the painting for a painstaking six years. When Modestini began work on the painting in 2005, she did not know she was dealing with the first Leonardo da Vinci painting to be discovered in over one hundred years. Rather, the painting revealed its identity little-by-little during the conservation treatment. She said in an interview that she wanted to be sure 'that none of my restorations had impinged on the original, that I had not done too much, because old pictures have to look old – if you take out every crack, every spot, every anomaly, they can easily look like a reproduction.' After finishing the work, Modestini recalls how painful it was once it was gone. 'It was a very intense picture', she says, 'and I felt a whole slipstream of artistry and genius and some sort of otherworldliness that I’ll never experience again.'


Watch Martin Kemp, Professor Emeritus in the History of Art at University of Oxford, and Dianne Modestini, Research Professor at the Kress Programme for Conservation, discuss the rediscovery of a masterpiece: chronology, conservation, and authentication.