The bidding for “Saviour of the World,” (“Salvator Mundi“), coordinated out of Christie’s New York office, lasted a little less than 20 minutes, with four and then just two final bidders battling it out. The bidding, which was live-streamed, moved rapidly, from the price guaranteed by Christie’s of $100 million to about $330 million before long pauses set in, as many bidders dropped out.
“Three thirty is bid and selling,” said auctioneer, Jussi Pylkkänen, Christie’s global president.
“Looking for another bid please,” he said. Noticing the continued phone chatter of auction representatives with their clients, he stopped briefly.
“The conversation continues. So we will pause.”
At about $370 million there appeared to be only two remaining bidders on the other end of the phone lines. Each were represented by Christie’s specialists, Francois de Poortere and Alex Rotter.
“Back to Francois’ clients at $370 million,” said Pylkkänen, as the room grew quiet
Then came $400 million bid.
“Francois is out,” said Pylkkänen. “Are you sure, Francois?”
He then turned to Rotter.
“It is with Alex Rotter at $400 . . . and the piece is sold,” said the auctioneer, to great applause.
With the buyer’s premium, an extra fee tacked on by auction houses, the final tally came to $450,312,500.
The identity of the winning bidder was not known.
“It is every auctioneer’s ambition to sell a Leonardo and likely the only chance I will ever have,” said Pylkkänen. “It’s the pinnacle of my career so far.”
The price made the other lots sold Wednesday night look paltry: A Warhol for more than $60 million; a Rothko for a mere $32.3 million. But there are plenty of Andy Warhol paintings and plenty of works by Mark Rothko.
“Saviour of the World” is one of some 16 known surviving paintings — including the “Mona Lisa” — by da Vinci, the master of the Italian Renaissance. The others are scattered throughout the world’s museums.
Billed by the auction house as “The Last da Vinci,” the painting spent centuries in obscurity until it was rediscovered in 2005 and underwent a six-year restoration and verification process. The small piece depicts Jesus raising his right hand in blessing and holding a crystal orb, meant to represent the world, in his left.
Over time, the painting has attracted scrutiny and, inevitably, a lawsuit.
But in the weeks leading up to the auction, some 27,000 people, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Alex Rodriguez, Patti Smith and Jennifer Lopez, flooded into viewing halls in Hong Kong, London, San Francisco and New York for a chance to glimpse the highly anticipated treasure.
Nina Doede was in awe when she saw the painting. “Standing in front of that painting was a spiritual experience. It was breathtaking. It brought tears to my eyes,” Doede, 65, told the New York Times.
At auction, the painting was guaranteed to sell for at least $100 million, which meant the auction house would make up the difference if went for less.
Da Vinci painted it in the early 1500s, and it quickly inspired a number of imitations. Over the years, art historians have identified about 20 of these copies, but the original long seemed lost to history.
At one point, it was part of the royal collection of King Charles I of England. It disappeared in 1763 for nearly a century and a half. In 1900, Sir Charles Robinson purchased the painting for the Cook Collection in London. But by then, it was no longer credited to da Vinci but to his follower Bernardino Luini.
In 1958, the collection was auctioned off in pieces, with “Salvator Mundi” going for a mere 45 pounds, which translates to about $125 today, CNN reported.
Then it dropped off the grid for another 50 years until resurfacing in Louisiana in 2005. There, for $10,000, New York-based art collector and da Vinci expert Robert Simon and art dealer Alexander Parish found and purchased it, the New Orleans Advocate reported.
At first glance, Simon thought it was just another copy of the famed painting.
“It was a very interesting painting but it’s not something I looked at and thought, ‘Oh, my God, it must be a Leonardo,'” Simon told CNN. “The whole idea that it might be by him was almost an impossibility; it’s kind of a dream.”
The piece was thick with overpaints, meaning artists had added paint to the existing image over the years as a means of either modernizing or improving it, probably to cover up chipped areas in the original.
Dianne Dwyer Modestini, a professor of paintings conservation at New York University, set about carefully restoring the portrait — which was still believed to be a copy — in 2007. She started chipping away at the varnish and overpaint obscuring the original, the beginning of a process that would take six years.
A strange feeling overtook her as she removed the first layer. For one thing, Jesus’ curly hair looked strikingly familiar.
“I was looking at the curls and St. John the Baptist at the Louvre, who has this huge head of massive ringlets and they are exactly the same,” Modestini told CNN.
It began dawning on her. The last da Vinci painting discovered and verified was “Benois Madonna” or “Madonna and Child with Flowers” in 1909.
“My hands were shaking,” Modestini told Christie’s. “I went home and didn’t know if I was crazy.”
A series of tests proved she wasn’t.
One of the key pieces of evidence was found via X-ray, which revealed what’s called a pentimento, a trace of an earlier painting beneath the visible one. It showed that Jesus’ right thumb was originally positioned slightly differently. But while working on the piece, da Vinci must have changed his mind and painted over it — the thumb was moved to the position in which it appears today.
“If you’re making a copy of a picture, there’s no way you’d do that,” British art critic Alastair Sooke said in a video for Christie’s. “It wouldn’t make any sense.”
That’s especially true when considering that “in all the copies of the painting, [the finger] follows the finished position,” as Simon told National Geographic.
There were other clues as well, History.com reported. It was painted on walnut in “many very thin layers of almost translucent paint,” like other da Vinci pieces from the era. Infrared light showed that the painter pressed his palm into the wet paint above Jesus’ left eye to smudge the colors, a technique da Vinci favored called sfumato blurring.
In 2011, the art community reached a consensus: This was a bona fide da Vinci.
“It’s the most unimaginable discovery of the last 50 years,” London-based art dealer Charles Beddington told the New York Times. “A painting by Leonardo is one of the rarest things on the planet. You can’t imagine it’s ever going to happen again.”
Or, as Simon told CNN, “This is not a little ripple in a pond, this is like a boulder,”
The painting made its public debut at London’s National Gallery in a 2011 exhibit titled, “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter in the Court of Milan,” where it “became one of the most talked-about pictures in the world,” as the New Yorker wrote.
Not only that, but it was one of the more expensive paintings in the world.
A consortium of dealers including Simon, Parish and Warren Adelson sold the painting in 2013 for $80 million to a company owned by a Swiss businessman and art dealer Yves Bouvier, Bloomberg reported.
Bouvier then flipped the painting the next year, selling it to Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev to the tune of $127.5 million — an almost $50 million markup.
Rybolovlev allegedly learned of the price difference from the New York Times, prompting an ongoing legal battle filled with suits and countersuits between Rybolovlev, Bouvier and Sotheby’s, which was the intermediary in the original sale to Bouvier.
After Wednesday’s sale, da Vinci’s “Saviour of the World” now joins a rare club of paintings that recently sold for more than $100 million, Artsy reported, including an untitled Jean-Michel Basquiat painting that sold for $110.5 million in May, an Amedeo Modigliani nude that sold for $170 million in 2015 and in 2013, and an Andy Warhol car crash painting that sold for $105.4 million.
Not everyone thinks the da Vinci is worth quite that much.
“Even making allowances for its extremely poor state of preservation, it is a curiously unimpressive composition and it is hard to believe that Leonardo himself was responsible for anything so dull,” Charles Hope, an emeritus professor at the Warburg Institute at the University of London, wrote of the piece.
The winning bidder did not agree.
This story has been updated.