Five hundred years ago, King Louis XIII of France commissioned Leonardo da Vinci to paint a portrait of Jesus Christ holding a glass orb. The sombre art piece, titled Salvator Mundi, sold for a record-breaking S$610 million at Christie’s New York last night, fetching approximately four times its estimated price of S$136 million.
The twenty minutes of bidding was reported to be a tense race for ownership, with the price jumping tens of millions within minutes during the auction’s peak. Such adrenaline-fuelled spikes are uncommon during art auctions. Even the previous record holder, Pablo Picasso’s Woman of Algiers, did not come close to the frenzied atmosphere infected by Salvator Mundi’s presence. Piccasso’s work was sold for S$244 million in 2015.
During the final ten minutes, reports confirmed that the price inched up S$2.71 million each time proxy buyers raised their hands. When the gavel landed, cheers rang out amongst the nervous spectators.
Auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen said to The Guardian, “It is the zenith of my career as an auctioneer. There will never be another painting that I shall sell for more than this painting tonight”.
The sale was made through a proxy, and the buyer’s identity still has not been revealed at the time of writing.
Art critics are divided as to whether Salvator Mundi is worth that much, but the painting’s history perhaps justifies its cost. Until the earlier part of the 21st century, this da Vinci was written off as lost, attaining the status of a Holy Grail amongst the Old Master’s archives. One Russian fertiliser oligarch, Ditmitry Rybolovlev, is responsible to consigning the artwork to Christie’s, but prior to this, it was owned by one dealer, Alexander Parish, who bought Salvator Mundi for a mere S$14,000 in an estate sale in 2005.
This is the only da Vinci painting to be owned privately, and regardless of the cost, the sale of the painting justifies da Vinci’s permanence, even in our contemporary world.