The Last da Vinci

The auction world never disappoints. 2017 has been a truly exceptional year. Phillips New York sold the now-famous Paul Newman’s Paul Newman for a whopping amount of $17,7 million. RM Sotheby’s sold a 1956 Aston Martin DBR1 for $22.5 million. Heck! Even an ancient Chinese bowl sold for $38 million. Frankly, none of the above are even worth mentioning in the same context as Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi. A 500-year-old painting that simply shocked, not only the art market, but the entire world.

Until November 15 2017, the world-record for a painting ever sold at auction was $180 million. An amount fetched in 2016 for a work done by Pablo Picasso. When Christie’s New York announced that they would sell an original oil painting by Leonardo da Vinci, everyone was stunned. Why? Well, da Vinci is as rare as it gets. There are only a handful of works done by da Vinci that are known today. Picasso painted more in one year than da Vinci did in his entire life. Another interesting fact is that all of da Vinci’s works are owned by various institutions; meaning that they are there to stay – and are not subject for a sale. However, there was one exception. One painting was actually owned by a private collector. And that’s the one! Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi – offered by Christie’s New York in November 15 2017 – was the last da Vinci. The art work was estimated to sell for $100 million. I personally felt that it would easily beat the record of $180 million. When the hammer dropped, and the auctioneer shouted “sold!”, the amount wasn’t only higher than the mentioned record, it was two and a half times as much! $450 million! I repeat – $450 million...

Although it’s not a hundred percent certain of whom commissioned the painting from da Vinci, it’s believed that King Louis XII of France (1462–1515) was the original buyer. The year of the painting is set to circa 1500. In other words, after da Vinci’s Last Supper, yet prior to his Mona Lisa. It was later owned by King Charles I of England (1600–1649), then cataloged as ”A peece of Christ done by Leonardo”. Other notable names in the list of provenance are King Charles II of England (1630–1685) and King James II of England (1633–1701). In 1763, the painting was sold at auction for an unknown amount. Since that, it was lost until 1909 when art collector Sir Charles Robinson acquired it. Remarkably, the painting wasn’t considered to be a da Vinci at that time. It was later sold in 1958 by Robinson’s heirs for 45 pound; again, not as a da Vinci, but just as a painting from circa 1500. It wasn’t until the year of 2005 when things started to get really interesting…

During an estate sale in Louisiana in 2005, the Salvator Mundi was offered for sale. The known da Vinci expert Robert Simon purchased the painting for $8,000. Simon didn’t buy it with expectations that it was the real thing, but rather as an interesting piece. Obviously, he knew that a da Vinci painting with that motive had been lost for many years. With that written, there are plenty fake Salvator Mundi that has surpassed the market with the attempt to outwit people to think that this is indeed the lost da Vinci painting. Anyhow, Simon immediately contacted a restorer to repair the painting as it was damaged and slightly overpainted. During the restoration, whilst peeling off the layer on the surface – the restorer began to wonder “what if…” a thought that also came to Simon’s mind. Gradually, they became more and more convince that this was indeed the lost Leonardo da Vinci work entitled Salvator Mundi. The $8,000 investment turned out to be a multimillion dollar asset.

After the painting became known to the public as an authentic da Vinci, the interest began to show. To own a painting by the artist who has made the world’s two most famous painted works – The Mona Lisa and The Last Supper – is surely on every art collector’s wishlist.

The Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier later sold the painting to Russian businessman Dmitry Rybolovlev in 2013 for the amount of $127.5 million, which was at the time one of the most expensive works of art ever to be sold. Note that the 2013 sale was not a public sale, but rather private. Four years later – more precise in November 15 2017 – the painting was sold once again, this time at a public auction. As mentioned, the price ended at the astonishing amount of $450 million.

One could wonder – how is it even possible for a board with some oil paint on it to sell for a price like that? The simple truth is that da Vinci, among a few other high-end painters are more than just painters. They are icons. Icons that left incredible art works for the later generations. It really doesn’t get any better than Leonardo da Vinci though. When the only privately owned piece in the world is offer at auction, then it’s a fight; in which only the last man standing is crowned the winner. The winner is yet anonymous. It’s somewhat unlikely for an institution to pay such a high amount, but more likely for an individual to buy and then lend it to an institution. The auction house will not, and frankly can’t disclose the buyer, but that doesn’t keep the art world from guessing. As for me, I rather not take a guess. The only thing I hope for is that this masterpiece shall be publically available for people all around the world. It sure would be a pity to find it in a basement in a private home.

Mr. Alexander Bitar