Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi sells for over $450 million with fees, becoming the most expensive painting ever sold.


The Frenzy

This week, all eyes were directed on the New York’s branch of Christie’s, a renowned auction house. The Wednesday auction attracted over 1,000 art collectors, journalists, and onlookers to the Rockefeller Center, where the auction took place. Thousands more followed it via a live stream.

And all because of a mysterious masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci. Rediscovered only recently, Salvator Mundi, portraying Christ as a “Saviour of the World”, sparks a general euphoria across the art world. The broad interest and the subsequent price – $450 million – reflect both the uniqueness of the artwork and the aura of mystery shrouding its past trajectory. For one thing, there are less than 20 paintings authenticated as being from the Old Master’s brush. However, all but Salvator Mundi belong to museum collections.

The Bidding

Bidding on the piece opened at $70 million. Amid gasps and applause among the audience, the bid kept rising. Within less than 20 minutes, Christie’s co-chairman Alex Rotter secured the winning bid for a client on the phone with $400 million, that is, exactly $450,312,500 with the fees. Hence, not only did Leonardo’s painting become the most expensive art-piece in history but it also more than doubled the previous record-holder that belonged to Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Algersold in 2015 for $179 million.

“We witnessed history,” commented the sale Brett Gorvy, the former Christie’s post-war chairman. “When was the last moment like this? The Rembrandts in the 1950s? The van Gogh in 1990?”

Contemporary Leonardo?

There is one more reason why the 500-years old Salvator Mundi differed from other artworks offered by Christie’s at the auction. The annual auction was dedicated to contemporary art. “We felt that offering this painting within the context of our Post-War and Contemporary Evening Sale is a testament to the enduring relevance of this picture,” explained Loic Gouzer, Chairman, Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s in New York.

The Mystery

The story behind the canvas is long, convoluted, and exciting. While the art community is divided on the precise dating, Leonardo painted Salvator Mundi at some point between 1490s (contemporary with The Last Supper) and early 1500s (contemporary with Mona Lisa).

But then the painting disappeared from 1763 until 1900 when it was acquired from Sir Charles Robinson. At this point, however, the masterpiece had been subjected to numerous alterations, trapping the original Saviour beneath a layer of fresh paint. In fact, no one even suspected it real authorship. Subsequently, the painting sold for £45 in 1958.

The painting miraculously resurfaced in early 2000s, when Dianne Dwyer Modestini, a distinguished conservator, came across with the piece. As she started to remove the first layers of the overpaint, she eventually realised that the painting was the long-disappeared masterpiece. “My hands were shaking,” she said. “I went home and didn’t know if I was crazy.”

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