“Leonardo is an artist who’s been in dialog with every artist who’s followed him—think Warhol, think Jean-Michel Basquiat—and as such, his work is absolutely timeless,” said Loic Gouzer, co-chairman of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s, during an October 10 announcement of the inclusion of Leonardo’s stunning and evocative Salvator Mundi (1500) in its evening sale of postwar and contemporary art in New York on November 15. “As you may know, at Christie’s we like to push boundaries. We like to disrupt things a bit.”
And disrupt they did Wednesday night at their Rockefeller Center headquarters. At 7:45 P.M., after a 20-minute bidding war, the rare-oil-on-panel (catalogue Lot 9B) was hammered in at $400 million by auctioneer and global president of Christie’s Jussi Pylkkänen, more than quadrupling its unpublished presale estimate of $100 million and easily surpassing the previous record for a work of art sold at auction, set by Pablo Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) (1955), which sold for $179.4 million at the same house in May of 2015. Salvator Mundi headed to the block with the comfortable backing of a third-party financial guarantee.
The take home price: $450,312,500 with an added buyer’s premium. The buyer was a telephone bidder on the line with Alex Rotter, chairman of the postwar and contemporary art department at the house.
Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World) has been hailed as one of the great rediscoveries of the 21st-century—coming to light in 2005 after having been long-obscured by heavy restoration and eventual mis-attribution. Thought to have been commissioned by King Louis XII of France and his wife, Anne of Brittany, the work is one of fewer than 20 known paintings by the artist to have survived to this day and the only one remaining in private hands.
It came to the block with no shortage of controversy. The painting was consigned to Christie’s by Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, who acquired it in 2014 for a reported $127.5 million from Yves Bouvier, his longtime art advisor and president of Natural Le Coultre, which operates Geneva Freeport. Only months before it seems, Bouvier had bought the work for a seemingly cheap $80 million from a consortium of dealers (and investors) led by Robert Simon, through a private sale brokered by Sotheby’s. It was Simon who in 2005 had spotted the work in a regional auction in Louisiana, snapping it up sans attribution for less than $10,000. Over the course of six years, the painting was painstakingly cleaned, restored, and scrutinized by Leonardo experts, who accepted it as authentic in 2011.