After Leonardo’s Sky-High Sale, the Art World Asks, Is There Still a Ceiling?

In interviews on Thursday, collectors, dealers and auction experts seemed to agree that the sale of the Leonardo was likely to be sui generis — that the artwork achieved an unprecedented price because it was an unprecedented piece.

Items like the Leonardo — “Salvator Mundi” an oil-on-panel of Christ holding a crystal orb — don’t come along often.

“People keep asking me, ‘When are we going to see the billion-dollar painting?’” said Brett Gorvy, the art dealer and former Christie’s worldwide chairman of postwar and contemporary art. “It’s not about the quality of the painting. It’s about the last picture by an artist in private hands who is a legend, who is a piece of our civilization. What other artist can be that? What other paintings?”

A van Gogh self-portrait, in perfect condition, with his ear cut off, might generate comparable market excitement, perhaps $500 million worth, Mr. Gorvy said. But even that work “would be measured on the quality,” he said, “not on the sheer rarity that this is the last of the last.”

But, experts add, Christie’s sale also attested to the continuing strength of the art market, and reaffirmed the extent to which art has become an asset class.

“It certainly takes off the cap of what a painting can be sold for,” said the veteran dealer Bill Acquavella. “You can invest in a number of things, whether it be equities or real estate, but you now also can invest in art.”

He added that the financiers buying art these days “manage their art collections like they would manage their stock portfolios.”

As to whether the over-the-top success of the Leonardo is likely to lift other auction lots, some experts said the rest of Wednesday’s sale indicates that reflected glory is not sufficient.

Despite the news-making $110.5 million sale of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1982 skull painting at Sotheby’s last spring, for example, that artist’s “Il Duce” (1982) failed to sell at Christie’s on Wednesday evening because bids did not meet the reserve. It had been expected to go for $25 million to $35 million. And Peter Doig’s “Almost Grown” (2000) was unable to attract more than its final bid of $9 million, below its low estimate of $10 million (the final price actually came to $10.4 million with fees).


Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1982 skull painting made news when it sold for $110.5 million at Sotheby’s last spring, but another work from the same year failed to sell at Christie’s Wednesday night. Credit 2017 The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ADAGP, Paris, via ARS;, via Sotheby’s

That said, many agreed that Christie’s had skillfully handled the Leonardo juggernaut, from the videos featured in its marketing campaign to the auction house’s worldwide tour for the painting — which generated lines of viewers who wanted a glimpse — to Wednesday night’s sure-handed auctioneering by Jussi Pylkkanen, who calibrated his bid-taking with sips of water and moments of levity. “They did a magnificent job,” Mr. Gray said. “It was clear they had rehearsed it. Jussi is as close to perfect as they get.”

Most of the credit went to Loic Gouzer, Christie’s co-chairman of postwar and contemporary art, who thought to go after the Leonardo in the first place, to position it in a contemporary sale and to sell the hell out of the painting. But he demurred. “Most of the work was not done by us,” Mr. Gouzer said, “it was done by the painting itself.”

Mr. Gouzer has become known as a leading disrupter in the auction business, in part because he keeps reinventing auction formats. “The stage managing was faultless,” Mr. Gorvy said.

Should a Leonardo da Vinci be the most expensive painting in the world? “Yes it should,” said Alex Rotter, Christie’s co-chairman of postwar and contemporary art for the Americas, who represented the winning buyer on the phone.

Meanwhile, people in the museum world struggled to get their heads around Wednesday’s astronomical price, one practically no museum could possibly afford (many are hoping the buyer ultimately donates or loans the Leonardo to an institution).

“I do not understand sums of money like this,” said Philippe de Montebello, the former head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “It’s beyond my comprehension.”

Mr. de Montebello would not comment on the quality of the artwork, which has been heavily debated, given that the painting had been significantly repainted and restored.

But, when it came to Wednesday’s sale, others say the condition was ultimately irrelevant. “You’re not really buying the painting; you’re buying Leonardo,” Mr. Gorvy said, echoing Christie’s marketing campaign. “You’re buying the air rights to an artist. You literally are buying the legend.”

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