Take heart: The last Da Vinci

We have witnessed one of the greatest flips in all of art history. “Salvator Mundi”, the last privately owned Da Vinci sold at auction this week for $450 million, beating Pablo Picasso’s "Les Femmes D‘Alger" sold for $179 million in 2015. “Salvator Mundi,” which was auctioned at one point in 1958 for 59 dollars, with inflation adjusted, sold for a 69.4 million percent increase.

The painting was purchased at an estate sale in 2005 for $10,000 by a group of art dealers and was restored and verified in preparation for its debut. Russian businessman Dmitry Rybolovlev brought the work to Christie’s, to be properly promoted and groomed. In a campaign video that would make Michael Bay jealous, the auction house calls the last Da Vinci “the discovery of a new planet”, a truly edgy adventure for the art connoisseur. For months, celebrities like Leo DiCaprio and Patti Smith have paid homage to the portrait, as we refreshed twitter hourly in anticipation.

This event has been surrounded by speculation, especially by those who find fault with the art market and have become more disenchanted by this unchecked, flagrant display of wealth. Art advisor and collector Todd Levin notes that we have witnessed a victory for “branding and desire”. The event of the century. The last of its kind. An undiscovered planet. To put it plainly, it’s all hype. Time and time again, the art world bites.

“This was a thumping epic triumph of branding and desire over connoisseurship and reality.”

– Art Collector Todd Levin, The New York Times

While some people are disillusioned by the spectacle, there are some who doubt the work's authenticity altogether. Overpainting, preservation, and questions of original authorship are all among art historians’ concerns. Perhaps more interesting is Christies’ sponsorship of such a contested work of art. Leading up to the auction, art critic Jerry Saltz, among many others, were vocal about their uncertainty with the paintings legitimacy:

“The idea that the best test of a painting is to place it under the hammer at auction simply tells you how out of touch Christie’s has become. But it’s also a sign of a new system of authority, a sad sign of how much power the auction houses have acquired that one of them is pushing a new work by an old master — a work that some experts accept, while many others are highly skeptical of, and yet no furor has been raised.”

- Jerry Saltz, Vulture

Like many, I found myself in the throes of this episode. Major art world event makes headlines. Records have been broken. Mysterious bidders and secret documents. The events unfolded like a future binge-worthy Dan Brown Made-For-TV series, and I’m all about it. Art, yet again, is causing a stir. It was all rather romantic. I was #shook. It wasn’t until a few days after the auction that I was no longer aflutter – I had bitter taste in my mouth. Was this painting now destined for the darkness of a billionaire's private vault? Even if a reputable institution had purchased it, would it have come with an absurd ticket price and hour-long lines? The upper crust is no stranger to using the art object as vehicle. Through history, the esteemed portrait has been a declaration of social prominence and power. The noble or wealthy merchant needs only his powdered, frilled self hanging above the mantle to show his eminent ass to the world. Esteemed art museum collections are full of works of art built on this predicate. But the events of this week felt different, and they were. Starting bids at $100 million (pre-auction) set this controversial painting up for an increasingly familiar scenario in our contemporary art market – the bid for power. (Like, think how many Puerto Ricans $450 million could feed.)

Robert Lefevre, Lois XVIII of France in Coronation Robes (with annotations)

Meanwhile, it is important that artists and lovers of art don’t lose perspective. The sale of the “Salvator Mundi” has shown us that the events of the past weeks were not a statement about painting (is it the undead?!) or the mystery of art. Christie's $400 million price tag affirms that this was a pissing contest. The art that most of us make, show and sell will never be pushed around as playing pieces on a chessboard. Let's take heart in the importance of the pop up show, the hand signed sketches sold at festivals, and seeing our favorite Monet at the Museum of Fine Arts. So, find some solace in the best twitter moments surrounding this B.S. event, and then get back to the studio.

*The author's opinions are her own.


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