There are only 24 known paintings by Leonard da Vinci still extant. Yesterday in New York at the famous Christie’s Auction house, the last known work by Leonardo known to be in private hands, Salvator Mundi, sold for a record $450.3 million plus fees.
The sum is by far the largest ever paid for a work of art and it is believed to be largely a result of an expert and sophisticated marketing campaign by Christie’s in the months leading up to the auction.
“This was a thumping epic triumph of branding and desire over connoisseurship and reality,” said Todd Levin, a New York art adviser, as reported by The New York Times.
The painting is not without controversy however.
First, there are those who claim the work is not an authentic Leonardo but rather a copy of a work no longer in existence or a painting undertaken by one of his followers. It was common during the Renaissance, right up to the 19th century, for established artists to run studios much like factories, where individual art students might work on paintings signed by the master painter. It was also common for students of a master to make their own paintings entirely and then try to sell them as works by their teacher.
In the case of Salvator Mundi (translated as “Savior of the World”), the painting has been the unfortunate victim of many so-called “restorations” that have marred and disfigured much of the original work. This is also common with works that are centuries old.
Some art historians refuse to give Salvator Mundi their stamp of approval because of these issues. The auction, however, was a sensational spectacle, drawing celebrities and top collectors like Eli Broad, Larry Gagosian and David Zwirner, each of whom came to witness the event much like Hollywood Stars come out of the woodwork to be seen at a heavyweight title bout.
This was all a strange and perverse sequence of events where the greatness of an artists and the artistic merits of the work in question were all relegated to some sort of freak sideshow that saw the obsession of wealth as a status symbol and the bemusement of a brand take center stage, stage left and stage right.