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(BBC) – A 500-year-old painting of Christ believed to have been painted by Leonardo da Vinci has been sold in New York for a record $450m (£341m).
The painting is known as Salvator Mundi (Saviour of the World).
It is the highest auction price for any work of art and brought cheers and applause at the packed Christie’s auction room.
Leonardo da Vinci died in 1519 and there are fewer than 20 of his paintings in existence.
Salvator Mundi, believed to have been painted sometime after 1505, is the only work thought to be in private hands.
Bidding began at $100m and the final bid for the work was $400m, with fees bringing the full price up to $450.3m. The unidentified buyer was involved in a bidding contest, via telephone, that lasted nearly 20 minutes.
The painting shows Christ with one hand raised, the other holding a glass sphere.
In 1958 it was sold at auction in London for a mere £45.
By then the painting was generally reckoned to be the work of a follower of Leonardo and not the work of Leonardo himself.
It apparently was part of King Charles I of England’s collection in the 1600s and got lost, but was “rediscovered” in 2005.
Analysis by Arts Editor Will Gompetz
$450m for Salvator Mundi is an astonishing price to have realised, given both its condition and authenticity have been questioned.
It shows that ultimately art comes down to belief.
And there were plenty of bidders last night who were suitably convinced by its Leonardo da Vinci attribution to drive the price up to such stratospheric heights.
As yet, the new owner is unknown.
Speculation will be rife. Which I will contribute to, by noting the newly opened Louvre Abu Dhabi will have a Leonardo shaped hole in its displays when the decade-long loan deal with the French museums comes to an end.
Wherever it ends up, you’ve got to hand it to Christie’s for its masterclass in the art of selling art.
In a bold move, without a hint of irony, the painting was sold in its Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale alongside a Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol.
Why not in the Old Masters Sale? Because that’s not where the elephant bucks are.
The big money comes into the room nowadays when Pollocks and Twomblys are on the block, and promptly leaves when the Reynolds and Winterhalters arrive.
Dr Tim Hunter, who is an expert in Old Master and 19th Century art, told the BBC the painting is “the most important discovery in the 21st Century”.
“It completely smashes the record for the last Old Masters painting to sell – Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in 1988. Records get broken from time to time but not in this way.
“Da Vinci painted less than 20 oil paintings and many are unfinished so it’s incredibly rare and we love that in art.”
Before the auction it was owned by Russian billionaire collector Dmitry E Rybolovlev, who is reported to have bought it in a private sale in May 2013 for $127.5m (£98m).
Is it authentic?
The painting has had major cosmetic surgery – its walnut panel base has been described as “worm-tunnelled” and at some point it seems to have been split in half – and efforts to restore it resulted in abrasions.
BBC arts correspondent Vincent Dowd said that even now attribution to Leonardo is not universally accepted.
One critic has described the surface of the painting to be “inert, varnished, lurid, scrubbed over and repainted so many times that it looks simultaneously new and old”.
“Any private collector who gets suckered into buying this picture and places it in their apartment or storage, it serves them right,” Jerry Saltz wrote on Vulture.com.
Speculation over buyer
But Christie’s has insisted the painting is authentic and billed it as “the greatest artistic rediscovery of the 20th Century”.
Georgina Adam, who is an Art Market specialist, told the BBC the price of the piece is “fuelled by the sheer amount of money that billionaires have.”
“This is the last Leonardo painting you can buy. This isn’t as a store of value, it’s the ultimate trophy – only one person in the world can own this.
“If you think of the wealth of some billionaires, Bill Gates is worth 87 billion, and I’m not saying it’s him, but near to half a billion would not be a colossal chunk out of his income for example.”
The auction house has not revealed who purchased the picture, but Hunter speculates it could be a buyer from Asia or even be on the way to the new Louvre in Abu Dhabi.
“It’s the sort of painting you can imagine as a star piece in a private collection and as billionaire collectors like to set up their own museums, it could be a good piece for them,” Hunter said.
Adam also thinks the piece could have gone to an Asian market.
“We don’t know who bought it, I went to the Louvre in Abu Dhabi and I did wonder whether the Gulf could be responsible.
“People are thinking the Far East, the picture was taken to Hong Kong before it was put up for sale to show to possible buyers there so that is possible. ”
Other high-priced paintings
1. Interchange by Willem de Kooning – $300m (£230m)
The 79 x 69 inch (2 x 1.75m) expressionist piece was painted in 1955. It was sold to hedge-fund founder Kenneth C Griffin, who spent about $500m in total in 2016 on a Pollock piece too.
2. Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?) by Paul Gauguin – $300m (£230m)
His post-impressionist painting of Tahiti women was sold in February 2015 to a mystery buyer, rumoured to be a Qatari museum, and is thought to share the top spot with a piece by William de Kooning.
3. The Card Players by Paul Cézanne – $250m (£190m)
This sale to Qatar broke records in 2011. The piece was painted at the end of the 19th Century and was part of a five-part series. The others in the series are at some of the world’s most prestigious art museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
4. Number 17A by Jackson Pollock – $200m (£150m)
This abstract expressionist piece was also sold in 2016 to Kenneth C Griffin from American businessman David Geffen.
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