Astonished and baffled, many of us are probably still trying to make sense of the $450 million Leonardo (fig.1; header image above). The freakish price, which made over $300 million profit for the seller who originally felt to have overpaid at $127 million, far exceeded everybody’s expectation. It challenged our preconceptions about the art world mechanics and brought on a slew of questions: how did the work manage to sell for such an astronomical figure? How will this affect the Old Masters trade? What does the price mean for the condition-conscious Old Masters market? What does it say about the art market in general?
Susan Moore in the Apollo Magazine attributes the record-breaking price (fig. 2) to ‘the dark art of marketing’ – an idea shared by many art journalists and critics. Ironically, that marketing included 14 pages in the 162-page catalogue written by her husband, David Ekserdjian, a respected scholar in the field as well as a former trustee of the National Gallery, who also participated in a panel discussion about the painting before its sale. The painting was taken, like many others have been, to Hong Kong (fig. 3), London, and California. It was the subject of a massive catalogue and described in bizarre hyperbole by Christie’s team, the strangest being comparing it to the discovery of a new planet. A more serious question is whether this really is the ‘last’ Leonardo.
However, having spent 12 years at Christie’s myself, I know that the publicity department there is not so practiced in any dark arts. It is extremely hard for any auction house to manipulate the press even with external expertise, and any coverage is just as likely to be negative as positive when dealing with a painting with history akin to Salvator Mundi’s. What I think happened was, rather like the viral response to David Zwirner’s current Kusama show, there was a genuine grassroots response to the appearance of this picture which generated its own publicity. Over 27,000 people lined up to see the painting (fig.4) Some knelt before it, some cried (all shamelessly recorded by Christie’s) but it really happened (fig. 5).
The most intelligent part of the marketing was to put the Leonardo in a Post-War Evening sale, which brought it to the widest possible audience. The underlying concept – applied at Frieze Masters and even occasionally a dealer like Gagosian – is that putting Old Masters in the context of Contemporary art benefits both categories and in this case there is no doubt about the magic it worked for the da Vinci, although less so for the contemporary part. Until now, the reasoning has been that Post-War buyers would be drawn to the relatively good value of blue-chip Old Master artists like Bruegel, Rubens, Rembrandt or Canaletto. In fact, I think what drew the buyers to the Leonardo was not the ‘value’ but the astronomically high price: even before the auction commenced it was the most expensive Old Master painting ever sold. I saw five bidders in the auction room competing at $130,000,000, above the supposed exorbitant figure paid by Dmitry Rybolovlev (fig. 6).
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To put things in another context, the mid-season Christie’s Old Master Paintings sale, which exceeded expectations, came to a total of $8.8 million with premium. It was sold 75% by lot and 116% by value (low estimate). The top lot was a Vigée Le Brun self-portrait (fig. 9) which sold for $1.5 million. According to a Christie’s specialist, there were new buyers at the sale who had come into the saleroom because of the Leonardo.
The concurrent TEFAF New York is also a marker for the Old Masters market. It was interesting to us that three of the top sales made in the fair – a panel by Heemskirk, a view of Venice by Francesco Guardi and a Mary Magdalene by Isenbrandt – had all been acquired relatively recently by the galleries at public auction. Even though the auction prices are readily available to any client who is interested, these sales show that the positive role played by dealers is appreciated. The case of the Guardi is especially interesting. A similar view of the Piazza San Marco by the same artist sold in Paris for $7 million on Mar 7, 2017. This one sold, at the same house, for a fraction of the price two weeks later. The dealer was therefore entirely justified in his asking price, reportedly, of somewhere above $2.5 million. He sold the painting and buyer and seller were both happy. One of the other stars of the fair was a beautiful Cleopatra by the Bolognese artist Donato Creti on Moretti’s stand which sold on the last day of the fair.