Art Market Matters: The Last da Vinci

Unusually, I’m breaking my pure-photo-blog ethic just this once so we can all observe an anniversary that no one reading this will ever care about. I don’t care much either, but it’s an excuse to talk about a thing that happened a year-and-a-bit ago that gave the collective art market a seizure and now suddenly is holding its breath hostage. 

Also. I’m still a little hesitant to put images up on this here blog so just trawl the web and find whatever shots of Jesus-on-board you want.

My man, Leonardo

In November 2017, a painting of Jesus on wooden board was offered by Christie’s in its Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale. It’s name was Salvator Mundi and was by Leonardo da Vinci. According to the post-sale statement, there were “fewer than 20 in existence acknowledged as being from the artist’s own hand, and all apart from Salvator Mundi are in museum collections.” [1] The artwork itself featured a depiction of Jesus holding up one hand and supporting a crystal orb in the other, proof if ever such a thing were needed that this individual was not some regular Joe and was, in fact, the saviour of humanity. The fact that it came up for auction was a big deal. 

What’s the Big Deal?

Well when I started writing this post I was intending for it to be somewhat related to the series on The Art Market, but since then life intervened (such a worthless excuse) and so the lapse has created a chasm from which I am desperately trying to extricate myself. I suppose the point of the matter is that the case of the “last da Vinci” brought an unbelievable amount of public attention to Christie’s and its impending sale. But, unless you’ve lived under a rock all your life, you’ll know that Leonardo da Vinci is no more a post-war or contemporary artist than porridge is a sensible material for making shoes, so why did Christie’s feature the da Vinci at all and so prominently? 

Jesus for Our Times

As daft as it sounds, selling with contemporary was a canny move, and had less to do with the relevant art period and more to do with exposure. The market for contemporary art has grown exponentially and overshadows Old Masters and Renaissance departments significantly. Christie’s knew that if they placed the da Vinci in an Old Masters sale it would receive a certain amount of attention, in correlation with the amount of attention on the Old Masters market. By contrast, placing it in the Contemporary Evening Sale offered infinitely more attention because the market for contemporary art is so huge. What’s more, they could spin the publicity to greater effect. 

Christie’s stated that the Leonardo’s inclusion in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale (I have to find a way of abbreviating this) was “testament to the picture’s enduring relevance.” [2] But how many people look at Old Master sales? And how many people look at contemporary art sales? There you have it.

The Auction Catalogue

For a work of such unimaginable uniqueness, rarity and importance (aaaaaall the buzzwords), a mere catalogue cover and regular entry just wouldn’t do. The provenance alone would easily take up half a page, the literature references possibly one and a half, and the extensive catalogue essay was practically a catalogue in itself. So, what to do? Create a separate catalogue specifically for the Saviour of the World, of course. This catalogue is now a thing-to-be-acquired. If you can’t get the thing itself, get the next best. All of these qualities contributed to the to-be-desiredness of the work. 

Hammer moment of glory at Christie’s New York, November 2017
Christie’s Youtube channel

Anniversario della Morte (I’m fancy because I speak Italian)

Christie’s created a furore of interest surrounding the artwork that had less to do with its cultural and historical significance as its status as potentially the last Leonardo in existence. Demand begets supply, but when the supplier has been dead for 500 years exactly this May 2nd, i.e. TODAY, demand inevitably increases to fever pitch. You can be almost certainly sure (hedging my bets language-wise) that those with enough moola only care about the cachet that comes inevitably from being the only owner of a thing in the world. 


Except, now that the darn thing is lost like some recently displaced Infinity Stones (cue home-alone-face) it’s a very different kind of cachet that’s attached to the Last Da Vinci now. Even if you made a Quantum Leap you wouldn’t be able to rescue that infernal canvas without somehow catastrophically altering the future-in-the-past. Time travelling is confusing. You can read an article on its disappearance, and find more information about the Saviour’s afterstory and listen to the restorer and experts talk about the restoration and history of the piece. [3]

Immoral of The Story?

I have literally said nothing new here. A lot of money was paid for an ancient picture of Jesus on wood. It was a stupid amount of money, the likes of which none of us are ever really likely to understand in our collective lifetimes (although I hold out hope that I’ll marry very well). It’s Grand Canyon levels of money for something that should very probably be in a museum where it can be appreciated and cared for properly. But, as I learned when in London, money doth make the world go round.


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