“It couldn’t have happened to a weirder picture,” says art critic Waldemar Januszczak in The Sunday Times. In New York on Wednesday last week, Salvator Mundi, supposedly a “lost work” by Leonardo da Vinci from around 1500, sold for $400m to an anonymous buyer, with Christie’s $50.3m in commission on top. The seller was the family trust of Dmitry Rybolovlev, a Russian oligarch embroiled in a legal tussle with the dealer who helped him amass a vast art collection, including the da Vinci, which he bought for $127.5m in 2013.
Before that, the painting had been bought for $10,000 in 2005, and for just £45 in 1958, when it was thought to be by a hand who worked in da Vinci’s studio. Last week’s price was more than five times the $76.7m paid for a Rubens in 2002, when the previous auction record was set for an Old Master, and far in excess of the $179.4m paid for Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger in 2015. It gets stranger.
The claim by Loic Gouzer, Christie’s New York chairman of contemporary art, “that the record-breaking Jesus bears ‘a patent compositional likeness’ to the Mona Lisa [or any other da Vinci] had me laughing out loud”, says Januszczak. And if da Vinci was such a keen scientific observer, asks The New York Times, why are the images depicted in the crystal orb in Jesus’s hand not inverted? Just supposing that it really is a genuine da Vinci, it has been retouched so many times that “not many of the brushstrokes can be his”, says Tiffany Jenkins in The Observer.
The masterstroke came from Christie’s. Prior to the sale, the auction house toured the painting in London, San Francisco and Hong Kong, and commissioned a slick video entitled The Last da Vinci: The World is Watching, for added hype. But most dastardly of all, Christie’s sold Salvator Mundi as part of its modern art sale, where the highest prices are fetched.
Chinese and Russian billionaires, swimming in liquidity, see art as an asset and a display of wealth, Jenkins explains, but “new money usually only sits in the auction room when something 20th century turns up”. Januszczak agrees: Christie’s “circumnavigated the knowledgeable world of the Old Master collector and headed straight for the dumb f*** with the money”.
The price is a symptom of a wider trend in risky assets, says Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in The Daily Telegraph. “It screams late-cycle liquidity, recalling Japan’s impressionist fever in the late Eighties before the Nikkei collapsed and the bottom fell out of the art market.” Salvator Mundi could be trying to tell us that, for investors, the end is nigh.
Cash in the attic
Last week, a 17th-century portrait of an austere-looking writer was found hanging in Penrhyn Castle, where it had been largely unvisited for 150 years. Deemed a copy, it had been afforded “no great value”, says The Guardian. That was until distinguished art scholar Benito Navarrete Prieto followed up on a hunch that led him to the castle in North Wales, and declared the painting a lost masterpiece by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, one of Spain’s great painters. In July, another Murillo, Ecce Homo, sold for £2.75m at Sotheby’s in London – good news for the National Trust, Penrhyn Castle’s owner.
So, should you go on the hunt for lost Masters? “No”, is the not-too-surprising answer. Discoveries such as the Murillo and Salvator Mundi are rare, Patrick Connolly, a financial adviser at Chase de Vere, tells the BBC’s Katie Hope. Even if you were to start an art fund as an investment, you would need at least £5,000 – but “possibly up to £500,000”. You can’t even enjoy what you’ve bought: they’ll have to be locked away in humidity-controlled boxes – which, again, cost money. Even then, there is no guarantee you’ll make a profit. As most art industry experts will tell you, says Hope, “buy a piece of art because you like it, not because you want to get rich”.
Ahead of Superman’s 80th birthday next year, a copy of the first Superman comic from June 1938 is heading for auction at the “Profiles in History” sale on 19 December in Los Angeles, California. The rare comic is made rarer still by being a “silver print” – a black-and-white copy produced by publishers in the 1930s for artists to fill in. It is expected to fetch between $800,000 and $1.2m; another copy sold for $3m in 2014.
A rare drawing (pictured) in Indian ink of Tintin from the 1939 comic-strip adventure Le Sceptre d’Ottokar (King Ottokar’s Sceptre) sold for €505,000 in Paris last Saturday. The sale at auction house Artcurial of works and toys created by Belgian artist Hergé also featured a strip from L’Étoile Mystérieuse (The Shooting Star), which fetched €381,000. Last November, a drawing from On a marché sur la Lune (Explorers on the Moon) sold for a record €1.55m.