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Salvation: The Curious Journey of the World’s Most Desired Painting

By Audrey Fein   Chapter One: The Auction   It was a crisp fall evening on November 15 in New York City. A mixture of spruce leaves and...

By Audrey Fein

 

Chapter One: The Auction

 

It was a crisp fall evening on November 15 in New York City. A mixture of spruce leaves and candy wrappers littered the streets as the last bit of warmth from the sun glittered over the Hudson. The city was on the edge of winter, but not quite there yet. New York was waiting for first the first frost, for the last golden leaf to fall into a gutter. The city was waiting for something to happen.

In Midtown Manhattan, a stream of people began to pour into the Christie’s New York headquarters at 20 Rockefeller Center. The first guests arrived at 5:30, and then they came in in waves, until 7:00 when that evening’s auction was set to begin. They arrived by subway, in limos, town cars, Ubers, and on foot. Ladies donned fur coats that matched the leaves on the sidewalk, in shades of brown, gold, and yellow. Their bags were snakeskin, leather, and expensive. Men wore wool trench coats over sharp suits and ties.[1]

Christie’s is a New York institution. It was founded in 1766 by James Christie in London, and opened an auction house in New York in 1977. Christie’s offers around 350 auctions annually in over 80 categories, which includes all areas of fine and decorative arts. Prices range from $200 to over $300 million. Thousands of the world’s most important artistic works have been through the doors of Christie’s New York, as have thousands of the world’s elites.[2]

The most important guests breezed into the main auction room first, and sat in the front. Among then was actor Leonardo di Caprio and his model girlfriend, Nina Adgal. Several prominent art collectors and museum curators came from all over the country, and world, to bear witness to that night’s events. The room was dimly lit, painted white, and had sparse decorations and bare bones furniture. Chairs were packed together with no spaces in between them. Audience members sat close together, each one crooning their neck to get a better view of the action through balding heads and up dos. As more people came in through the broad, gold-encrusted doors, the temperature and volume of the room increased. There was a feeling of excitement in the air. While there is always excitement before a high-stakes Christie’s auction, it felt more intense on this particular fall evening.

The volume continued to rise as more people entered the room. People only tangentially connected to Christie’s – art deliverymen, sisters and brothers of employees, and little-known private collectors – had tried to earn a spot at the auction to watch the night’s events. Some succeeded, and crammed into the back with the camera on their phones open, poised and ready to document their night to their social networks. When space in the main room ran out, ushers escorted guests to a separate room where the auction was streamed on a large screen. People did not seem to mind, they were grateful to be there at all.

The back of the main auction room was reserved for the press, who sat with notebooks and hawk eyes, scanning every person and object in sight. This was not an evening of leisure for them; it was an evening of work. They wore plain clothes and sneakers. As the press often does, they served as eyes in the room for people who were not invited. Buzzfeed live streamed the auction on Facebook, and over 208,000 people tuned in, each of them wanting to see a piece of the New York City art world unfold on a tiny glowing screen somewhere.

Voices in the room became louder and speculative. Shrill laughs pierced the air. And then: the gavel. The auction room when quiet, cell phones were silenced but not put away, and Jussi Pylkkanen the global head of Christie’s, walked to the wooden podium with embossed letters spelling “Christie’s” on the front. Everyone clapped. Then the Christie’s agents that night walked in and took their place to Pylkkanen’s right in a wooden enclosure. In a high profile auction such as this one, in which some bidders want to remain anonymous or cannot be physically present, agents stand in for the bidders. They are usually Christie’s employees. Each agent had a telephone in the booth to communicate with their client as the auction proceeded in real time, and they spoke in hushed tones, helping the bidder on the other end decide what bid to make and at what time.

Each agent was more polished and put together than the next. Their suits and skirts matched the style of the audience members. At the front of the pack stood Alex Rotter, Christie’s co-chair and former Contemporary Art Co-Head at Sotheby’s. The art world is small, and people move around. That evening, Rotter was representing a mysterious, anonymous, and super-elite bidder.[3]

The auction was a Post-War and Contemporary Art evening sale, a regular event where Christie’s places its most high-profile and buzz-worthy pieces, regardless of when they were painted. Post-war and contemporary art sales account for 48 percent of fine art sales today. The auction featured 32 pieces, the vast majority of which were painted within the last century, with one key exception.

The main event of the evening was an item that was anything but contemporary; scholars estimate that it was painted around 1500. Pieces painted in the Renaissance usually go in an Old Masters sale, instead of a Post-War and Contemporary art sale, but Christie’s made the strategic decision to include it with more modern works. The organization wanted to put it in front of the wealthiest and keenest buyers, people who would seize upon the momentum of the inflated and costly contemporary art market, where paying millions of dollars for a painting is just another Tuesday evening. This was one in a long string of decisions that Christie’s made to show the world just how important the painting really was.[4]

The work was lot 9B: the Salvator Mundi of Leonardo da Vinci.

In 1958, the painting sold for only £45 at a Sotheby’s auction. It was believed to be a common copy until 2005 because it was obscured by crude over-paint from earlier attempts at restoration.  At one point restorers had repaired the cracked and bowed panel by using stucco fill, gluing it to another backing, and painting over the suture.

To get the painting ready for its 2017 auction, it went through a five-year restoration process under the eye of the NYU Conservation Center’s Dianne Dwyer Modestini. Is the painting exactly how Leonardo would have rendered it? Perhaps it does not matter.[5]

Christie’s knew beforehand that the auction would be a monumental one, because it was intentionally curated that way. In preparation for the sale the auction house stated on its website: “to bid on Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, Lot 9B, we require the use of a specially designed paddle.” In a typical Christie’s auction, each bidder needs a paddle to participate in the auction, which they can obtain 30 minutes prior to the sale, and which includes the number affiliated with the bidder’s account. The white paddles are reused after every auction.[6] Due to the special nature of the auction, agents did the bidding, and they used hand gestures. The six bidders got to keep the paddles as souvenirs. The paddles were red and special, just like the painting and everything it represented.[7]

Leading up to the auction, Christie’s stated they would  “tour this exceptional painting to key locations around the world, including Hong Kong (13-16 October), San Francisco (18-20 October) and London (24-26 October).” While wrapping an invaluable piece of art in bubble wrap and hauling it around the world for potential clients to see is not a new tactic, it does show how intent Christie’s was on drumming up interest from super-elite bidders outside of the United States. Most collectors want to see a work in person, especially if it is valuable, before deciding whether to bid for it and how high to go. If the painting really was the “greatest artistic discovery of the 21st century,” as Christie’s claimed, the world should know.[8]

By the time the Salvator Mundi made it to New York for a weeklong display in November, people lined up around the block, in the rain, to see him. A video of their reactions, which was circulated by the auction house and produced by the ad agency Droga5, shows some viewers with tears in their eyes. Over 30,000 people came to see him that week.[9]

However, at the auction, Salvator Mundi was not present. Only an image of the Salvator Mundi was shown on a screen.

Christie’s estimated the piece would sell for $100 million, and each bidder had to verify having the $100 million to pay for the painting before the auction even began. That amount alone narrowed the pool of potential bidders to museums, foundations, and the ultra-rich. One bidder who wished to remain anonymous entered the running late: merely 24 hours before the auction. Christie’s lawyers were still scrambling to verify his identity hours before it began. Rotter was chosen to represent him.

Pylkkanen wore a dark suit, pressed white shirt, monogrammed silver cufflinks, and a blue tie. Pylkkanen’s abilities and his platform turned him into the most prominent broker in global auctions since his beginning at Christie’s in 1987. In the past two years Christie’s has outpaced its rivals, in large part due to Pylkkanen’s leadership — with revenues in the first half of 2018 at $4.5 billion, compared with $3.7 billion at Sotheby’s.

Of all his crafty sales tactics, the one used to greatest effect by Christie’s 52-year-old grey-haired global president is the query: “Are you sure?” He is also known for asking, “Are we done?” He asks it as one of the last two bidders in an auction is considering dropping out and letting the other win. He then halts the action for a few seconds — what he calls “the auctioneer’s pause” — and pressure builds on the bidders to stay in and outdo each other.[10]

Pylkkanen introduced Lot 9B: “Leonardo’s masterpiece of Christ the savior.”

Leonardo brought his unique style to the image, which gives it the emotional subtlety of the Mona Lisa. The misty central figure stands out against a black background. His curls look hazy around the scalp, but as they cascade down his shoulders they become more defined. Christ appears to have a soft smile on his blurred lips.[11] Is he really smiling? Look again. Is the figure staring at us or into the horizon? Take another look. Walk around, sway from left to right, confront the image again. What do you see?

In his painting, Leonardo presents Christ as he in the Gospel of John 4:14: “And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the World.” Christ gazes fixedly at the spectator, lightly bearded with auburn ringlets, holding a crystal sphere in his left hand and offering benediction with his right. As Martin Kemp, an emeritus professor of art history at Oxford University, has noted (in an unpublished essay), “the Saviour literally holds the well-being of the world and its inhabitants in the palm of his hand.” The painting is so unique because the figure is also strictly human. Christ has no halo, unlike many other representations of Christ from the Renaissance, and looks to be a mortal man, with only a slight suggestion of the immortal and the holy.[12]

“Previously in the estates of three kings of England: King Charles I, King Charles II, and King James II.” Pylkkanen announced it as if this auction was business as usual, as if the painting was on par with the piece that sold right before it, Lot 8B, Vija Clemin’s 1969 Lead Sea #2 for $4.2 million. Lead Sea #2 is a detailed ocean drawing in which “the indefinite and limitless quality of the ocean’s surface is re-created in an infinitesimal array of delicate graphite marks.” The bidding lasted for about one minute.

It is not everyday that a real da Vinci is put up for auction. The Salvator Mundi is one of 20 paintings recognized in the art world as an authenticated da Vinci. In 1909, scholars discovered the Belnois Madonna oil painting among works of various artists held in private collections. Tsar Nicholas II then acquired it for the Heritage in 1914, and the attribution of this work to Leonardo was almost immediate and unanimous. The piece was transferred from wood to canvas when it entered the Hermitage, and it was severely damaged, as many of Leonardo’s original works are.[13] Almost a century later, La Bella Principessa found to be authentic. La Bella Principessa first came to the attention of the public in 1998 at a Christie’s auction. At the time, it was thought to be a German work.[14] Scholars who believed it was a Leonardo ran various tests on the paint and by 2003 it was authenticated as a true Leonardo. In 2005, the world was not due for a new discovery. Yet there he was: The Savior of the World.

The bidding started at $70 million. Within 45 seconds, the price was at $110 million. There were six potential bidders.[15]

“One hundred sixty might take it,” Pylkkanen said in a casual tone, as he relaxed over the podium.

He was wrong. The price continued to increase in increments of $10 million dollars – each jump equivalent to the amount of money that could pay four years of tuition for 50 students at private colleges, or pay the salary of 221 schoolteachers in West Virginia for a year.[16]

A ripple of murmurs swept through the room as the offers soared past $200 million. By now the bids had surpassed the highest price ever paid for a work of art at auction. The previous record of $179.4 million paid for Picasso’s “Women of Algiers (Version O),” in May 2015, also at a Christie’s auction in New York.[17]

“Do I have 205?” Pylkkanen said, and then, a moment later, “I didn’t think I would, but there it is at 205.” Despite his surprised words, his voice remained neutral and balanced. He knew this was a possibility, as incredulous as it seemed to onlookers.

A few seconds passed, and he added: “A casual hand goes up at 220 million.” At $230 million, a bid went unchallenged for almost a full minute; the longest amount of time the price had stayed stagnant. It seemed as though this might be the selling point.

No. With coaxing from Pylkkanen, the bid rose to $240 million. The crowd got louder. People whipped out phones and snapped pictures of the moment. $280 million was called.

Are we all done?” Pylkkanen said in his signature inquisitive tone. “Maybe not,” he said. The price rose by another $2 million to $282 million.

At $286 million, Pylkkanen asked if one of the bidders could give him 290. The people in the room held their breath and there was a tense pause. The only sound was the click of cell phones snapping picture after picture.

“Three hundred” was the response. The crowd gasped. “I thought so,” Pylkkanen replied. “Let’s see if that’s done it.”

“It’s a historic moment: we’ll wait,” Pylkkanen said as the agents on the phone conferred with the bidders. Alex Rotter kept making bids.

Little by little, the bids crept up to $325 million, $330 million, all the way to $332 million. The contest boiled down to two bidders, with the price jumping at one point from $332 million to $350 million in one bid. The crowd erupted. When Pylkkanen suggested $352 million dollars, the crowd audibly laughed and was then was shushed, as the price rose.

The total edged up another few million dollars, and Pylkkanen tried to coax a $360 million bid.

Instead, a bidder placed a bid of $370 million. The auction had only been going on for seventeen minutes.

Again, there was a short discussion between the agent and the bidder on the other end of the telephone line. The auction was at the 18-minute mark. Then, Rotter placed a $400 million dollar bid with a wave of his hand to Pylkakkanen. It was a $30 million jump, and there were gasps in the saleroom.

“Here in the saleroom at $400 million, with Alex Rotter, the bid is here at $400 million dollars.” Pylkkanen stated. The auctioneer kept his cool with another “Are you sure?” directed at Francois de Poortere, the Head of the Old Masters Department, who was the agent for the second-to-last bidder in the running.

De Poortere was still.

“At $400 million then, thank you all for your bidding here, and on the telephone, and to Francois de Poortere. It is with Alex Rotter at $400 million, Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi, selling here at Christie’s, $400 million dollars is the bid, and the piece is sold.” His gavel hit the podium.

The audience began to wildly applaud and cheer. With fees, the total price to the buyer was $450.3 million.

“It was a moment when all the stars were aligned, and I think Leonardo would be very pleased,” Mr Pylkkänen told Reuters after the sale. “It’s a painting beyond anything I’ve ever handled,” he said, adding, “I should hang up my gavel.”[18]

With a bang of Pylkkanen’s gavel, the piece was sold. After Pylkkanen waited a few seconds for the clapping and cheering to stop, the Post-War and Contemporary Art evening sale moved on to lot 10B, a contemporary work by Jean-Michel Basquiat that sold for $24 million.[19]

The Salvator Mundi was sold, but to whom? And how had this painting arrived at this moment?

 

 

[1] Descriptions of the auction here and below, unless otherwise noted: Isabelle Hofgaertner, Interview, March 9, 2018.

[2] “About Us: This History of Christie’s | Christie’s,” https://www.christies.com/about-us/welcome-to-christies/about-us/.

[3] “BuzzFeed News – Da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi’ painting Just Sold For…,” accessed April 30, 2018, https://www.facebook.com/BuzzFeedNews/videos/1700664359954575/.

[4] “PRESS RELEASE: Christie’s to Offer the Last Leonardo Da Vinci Painting in Private Hands,” accessed March 29, 2018, https://www.christies.com/about-us/press-archive/details?PressReleaseID=8839&lid=1.

[5] “NYU Alumni Magazine: The Lost Leonardo,” accessed April 1, 2018, https://www.nyu.edu/alumni.magazine/issue17/17_square_art.html.

[6] “14 Auction Terms to Know | Front & Center at Rockefeller Center,” accessed May 8, 2018, https://www.rockefellercenter.com/blog/2016/09/15/14-auction-terms-know/.

[7] “The Last Da Vinci | Christie’s,” accessed March 30, 2018, https://www.christies.com/features/The-last-da-Vinci-Salvator-Mundi-8598-3.aspx.

[8] “The Gray Market: Why Christie’s ‘Salvator Mundi’ Sale Is Riskier Than It Seems (and Other Insights),” artnet News, October 16, 2017, https://news.artnet.com/market/the-gray-market-salvator-mundi-sale-1117208.

[9] “Droga5’s Sublime Ad for Christie’s Captures the Power of a Leonardo Painting Without Even Showing It,” accessed March 29, 2018, http://www.adweek.com/creativity/droga5s-sublime-ad-for-christies-captures-the-power-of-a-leonardo-painting-without-even-showing-it/.

[10] John Gapper, “Christie’s Jussi Pylkkanen and Superauctions,” The Financial Times, April 9, 2018, Arts edition.

[11] Walter Isaacson, Leonardo Da Vinci (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017).

[12] Martin Kemp, “Unpublished Papers,” 2011.

[13] “Benois Madonna – by Leonardo Da Vinci,” https://www.leonardodavinci.net, accessed May 7, 2018, https://www.leonardodavinci.net/benois-madonna.jsp.

[14] “La Bella Principessa: Mr Martin Kemp.

[15] “Leonardo Da Vinci Painting Sells for $450m at Auction, Smashing Records | Art and Design | The Guardian,” accessed May 7, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/nov/15/leonardo-da-vinci-salvator-mundi-auction.

[16] Abigail Hess, “West Virginia Is One of the Lowest-Paying States for Teachers,” February 26, 2018, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/02/26/west-virginia-is-one-of-the-lowest-paying-states-for-teachers.html.

[17] “Billionaire Griffin Pays $500 Million for Two Paintings,” Bloomberg.com, February 18, 2016, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-02-18/billionaire-griffin-said-to-pay-500-million-for-two-paintings.

[18] Chris Graham, “How Leonardo Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi Smashed Records – and How It Compares to Other Art Sales,” The Telegraph, November 16, 2017, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/art/artists/historic-moment-wait-da-vincis-salvator-mundi-smashed-records/.

[19] “Post-War & Contemporary Art Evening Sale,” accessed March 30, 2018, https://www.christies.com/Post-War-and-Contemporary-Art-27244.aspx.