Obscured by layers of overpaint for centuries, Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, offered at Christie’s in New York on 15 November, had long been dismissed as a copy of a missing work by the Renaissance master. Its reattribution to Leonardo ranks as arguably the greatest artistic rediscovery of the 21st century, and its inclusion in a 2011 exhibition of works by the artist at London’s National Gallery made international headlines. When the exhibition ended its run, however, the painting — one of fewer than 20 by the artist known to survive — again disappeared from view.
In 2017, Christie’s announced in a dramatic reveal at Rockefeller Center that the painting had been consigned for sale, and would be offered, exceptionally, in the Post-War and Contemporary Evening Sale. A world tour followed: more than 27,000 visitors waited in line in New York, London and Hong Kong for a chance to see the Salvator Mundi in person. Among the star-struck admirers were Patti Smith, Jennifer Lopez and Leonardo DiCaprio (who is rumoured to be playing the artist in an upcoming biopic).
‘Leonardo would be very pleased, it was a moment when all the stars were aligned. It is every auctioneer’s dream to work with a masterpiece by Leonardo’
At auction, Salvator Mundi realised a monumental $450,312,500 (including buyer’s premium), with the gavel falling at the end of a 19-minute bidding marathon. That figure obliterated the previous record for any work of art purchased at auction (held by Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger, sold at Christie’s in 2015 for $179,364,992), and any work of art ever sold privately.
Jussi Pylkkänen has presided over many of the great sales of the past decade, including the auction of Les Femmes d’Alger, but even for him this was a unique moment in auction history. It seemed that every great collector in the world was either in the saleroom or following the bidding on Christie’s Live as Lot 9 was opened with the statement, ‘And now we come to the Leonardo, previously in the collections of three kings of England’, and was met with bids of $10 million.
The price for the Leonardo rose steeply to $200 million, and then to $284 million, before there was an interminable pause — ‘the $116,000,000 pause’ — followed by a further nine-minute bidding war, and a final bid of $30 million which took it to a hammer price of $400 million. A unique moment, a unique work of art, and perhaps a price that will not be matched for many generations.
As Pylkkänen commented after the sale, ‘Leonardo would be very pleased — it was a moment when all the stars were aligned. It is every auctioneer’s dream to work with a masterpiece by Leonardo, and I am so pleased that the painting will now go on display at the Louvre Abu Dhabi where it will be enjoyed by the public.’