Private islands, a plethora of Porsches and college tuition for classrooms full of kids.
These are just a few of the many things someone can spend $450 million on. While the average
individual only dreams of a phone number-length bank account and free-spirited spending,
others are lucky enough to drop stacks on anything. It could be the most lavish, grandiose item,
or something as simple as a painting.
In November 2017, Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi shocked art historians when it
went for an astounding $450.3 million dollars, making it the priciest piece ever sold at auction
(Farago). The da Vinci masterpiece, an oil on walnut, was awarded to an undisclosed buyer at
Christie’s Rockefeller Center in New York, NY. The last minutes of bidding were like waiting
for the final strike to fall in the World Series. From the ones to twos and finally four hundred
million, it climbed the ladder into art history before settling on the historic final amount, far
surpassing the previous record holder (Farago). (Picasso’s Women of Algiers was auctioned at
Christie’s for $179.4 million in May 2015) (Farago).
Just what is this painting that broke records and earned a mention in every art history
lecture for years to come? From the perspective of a regular person with zero expertise who was
thrust into art history to gain elective credit, it looks like an uglier version of the Mona Lisa.
Upon first glance, I didn’t even recognize that this dead-eyed five o’ clock shadow-wearing
figure was supposed to be Jesus Christ. My eyes were drawn to the facial structure, which bears
an oval shape similar to that of the Mona Lisa. In addition, the straight hair flows over the sides,
differentiating here with curls at the bottom.
“It looks like she the Mona Lisa developed a drug habit and hormonal imbalance with
that beard-looking bottom of her face,” I so very academically commented upon seeing a picture
of the painting once it hit the mainstream news waves. When I learned it was Jesus, I tried
viewing the work in a more serious sense, taking note of the religious elements within it.
However, I failed to find anything remotely spiritual. In my point of view, Jesus seems to
be knocked down to the status of a regular person. As stated before, I couldn’t even tell that this
was Jesus until it was pointed out to me. Rather, it appeared more like a sibling of the Mona
Lisa. I thought that this was just the way da Vinci painted his people.
Jesus, at least in my catholic school upbringing, is always depicted as glowing, whether
in his skin of via bearing a halo. This Jesus, however, is paler than an albino person,
exemplifying no more color than a corpse. The lifelessness in his body matches the face, which
is void of expression. A straight-laced mouth is coupled with empty eyes to complete the look of
a Jesus that is either strong but stoic or just severely depressed. Of all the facial elements, it is the
eyes that struck me the most.
What color are they? Where are the pupils? Did Da Vinci intentionally make them blurry
and blend them into the face? Why not make them stand out? It’s possible that the eyes were
created like this to maintain a sense of mystery. Are we left to determine what he’s thinking?
Coupled with the facial expression, viewers can’t gauge what Christ is feeling. There is no
definitive emotion, rather speculation as to what the focal character of this work might be
thinking. However, one central consensus, is that this version of the Lord is not depicted in the
glamorous fashion that a devout Christian might want to show.
“There’s a meekness and monotony to ‘Salvador Mundi’ that can’t be redeemed by
marginally engaging details,” said Jason Farago, an art critic for The New York Times. “The
savior of the world appears in this painting as a soft, spumy cipher” (Farago). This critique, for
me at least, sheds light on the bevy of flaws that, albeit don’t disqualify this piece from being a
fantastical example of fine arts, make me wonder how it sold for such an astronomical price.
“The picture has suffered,” said art curator Luke Syson, who featured the painting in the
2011 National Gallery exhibition in London. “While both hands are well preserved, the painting
was aggressively over cleaned, resulting in abrasions on the whole surface, especially in the face
and hair of Christ” (Pogrebin and Reyburn).
I agree with this expert opinion, as the odd depiction of the face is what I was initially
drawn to. I described the facial features as being “blurry” and possibly intentional, but now I
believe otherwise. Is this ghostly-pale disfiguration just the result of a lifetime of restoration?
Now more than ever, it continues to beg the question as to how this work, far past its prime, shot
back into stardom. Does the old replace the new or surge into a second wind?
Maybe it’s partially because, as with people, everybody loves an underdog. The 25.8 in x
19.2 in piece was crafted in 1500 for Louis XII of France and Anne of Brittany, his consort
(“Salvator Mundi”). This “dark and gloomy” portrayal of Christ wasn’t always a front-runner in
the art world, selling for $10,000 in 2005 to a group of art dealers. At the time, wear and tear had
gotten the best of it with restoration being the only hope of bringing it back to life (“Salvator
Mundi”). The painting’s wood surface was damaged, displaying a slew of visible cracks and
chafing marks. In addition, it was aggressively overpainted, making it look like a copy (“Salvator
Mundi”). After being revived, the work was sold to a Russian collector in 2013 for $127.5
million (“Salvator Mundi”). Just four years later, it broke the record.
After learning of the restoration and gradual climb of financial worth, I was still left
wondering how someone could possibly spend so much money on a picture. Therefore, I delved
further into the details. What is so captivating about this image? While it didn’t catch my eye the
first time, as its nearly transparent shade melds into the background of where it lies in the bottom
right corner, there might be something compelling about the orb and its underlying meaning.
“The orb that Christ holds in his left hand symbolizes dominion over all creation,” said
Farago (Farago). He goes on to highlight its “watery coloring, glossy edges and dimpled bottom”
(Farago). While Christ’s face may lack this feeling of power and leadership that is commonly
associated with him, the orb in his palm holds the world. I see it as a subtle display of Christ’s
eternal authority that isn’t overwhelming to the viewer. Wildly religious individuals would
convey Jesus as this omniscient and superstar being. Here, however, he is reduced to more of a
human level, with his depiction of power being contained in the orb rather than aggressively
flaunted and thrown in the viewer’s face. Was da Vinci going for all of this or am I just reading
into it? I guess that’s part of the beauty of art!
Another component that I initially glanced over was the embroidered blue gown adorning
Christ’s body. As with the rest of the painting, it’s in a faded and plain shade of the color that
doesn’t have any “wow factor” to it. Rather, the highlight of it is within the designs on the
garment. According to Fagaro, “it has a mathematical intricacy that gives this Christian
painting a surprising Islamic touch” (Farago). Once again, it has me speculating as to whether or
not this was intentional. Was he trying to subtly weave in another culture? Was this just a design
that happened to resemble an Islamic pattern?
If anything, analyzing the background behind this ridiculously expensive painting helped
me realize how subjective art is. I viewed and documented my own visual observations before
reading anything about sale or from critics so as not to be influenced. The opinions may have
been vastly different, but it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. I believe that our own life experiences
and backgrounds can influence the way that we consume art, whether it’s music, writing,
paintings, etc. There may be factual information about a piece’s purpose and the artist’s goal in
creating it, but it’s up to the viewer to determine how it will resonate within us.
While studying this piece helped me better under art and how painting is far more than
looking for a distance and tilting your head in a semi-confused manner, I’m still perplexed as to
how art could be worth that much money. I tried applying the situation to my own life. Would I
(if I ever had that much money) spend it on the things I love? Multiple tattoo sleeves and
Yankees season tickets and everything else that is not a need but a want? I don’t think I could.
What really goes into dropping this kind of dough on a singular painting?
Looking at the work of art itself may not hold the answer. Rather, it’s all the factors
involved in auctioning off a work. Sometimes good branding and stellar marketing is all it takes
to make a profit. Therefore, da Vinci, albeit an incredible artist well-deserving of the accolades,
isn’t the only one who should be credited with making history. Christie’s in New York, where
the painting was auctioned off, is also responsible thanks to their unique marketing campaign.
For the first time, the auction house, located at 20 Rockefeller Plaza, enlisted an outside agency
in advertise the work (Pogrebin and Reyburn). Using an advertising approach similar to the
concept of commercials, the hope was that more exposure would attract more bidders.
In addition, to light a fire in any potential bidders’ wallets, Christie’s released a video of
the painting being pitched to Hong Kong clients, knowns as “the holy grail of our business”
(Pogrebin and Reyburn). It was no longer that talk of “oh, somebody’s interested,” but rather
visual proof that if you don’t make a move soon, you’ll spend forever staring at that empty space
on the wall where the painting could’ve hung. The final tactic, and maybe the most compelling
of all, was the wording.
As a public relations student, I have always been taught about the effect of buzzwords
(amazing, limited time only, etc.) that can reel in the public and grab their attention. To
Christie’s, this painting wasn’t just any regular da Vinci original. It was “the Last da Vinci”
(Pogrebin and Reyburn). (When elaborated upon, what they really mean is that it’s the last of its
kind in a private collection, with 15 others in museums.) This simple phrasing leaves people
wondering if this is worth shelling out more money since it’s their last chance to claim a da Vinci
piece. No more waiting. It’s literally now or never own a work of his. Would that motivate you?
If I were interested in owning art pieces, I know it would pique my interest.
Given I’m writing all about this instance over anything else relevant in the art history
world, their tactics obviously worked. They garnered crowds surpassing 27,000 at pre-auction
viewings in Hong Kong, San Francisco and New York and attracted the attention of highly
reputable art dealers such as Larry Gagosian and David Zwirner (Pogrebin and Reyburn). In the
end, it came down to fiver dealers and 19 minutes of banter before settling on the final price.
Will anything ever surpass this mountain of money? Is the next generation of artists
going to bring about someone whose talent is even worth that much? I would say yes. I believe
art, in any form, is fueled by the world’s current situation. Anger, injustice and inequality act as
motivating factors, becoming outlets for people to express themselves. In today’s dysfunctional
climate, there’s more than enough to draw, paint, write and sing about. I’ll surely be bleeding out
the creativity and I hope everyone else will be too.
Private islands, a plethora of Porsches and college tuition for classrooms full of kids.