Last week, I had the absolute pleasure of attending the historical auction of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” (c.1500), the only painting by the artist still in private hands (the other 19 authentic Da Vinci paintings are owned by public galleries and institutions). Why and how I was able to attend the very exclusive auction I will not divulge for personal reasons, but it was a business related matter.
"Salvator Mundi" (c.1500) by Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519)
The “Salvator Mundi” is thought to have been painted around 1500 (before the ‘Mona Lisa’ (1503)), having been commissioned by the French Royal family. Over the past 500 years, the painting has been passed through several hands, including three British monarchs, and a lineage of various aristocracy before disappearing into virtual anonymity. The painting was thought to have been lost and destroyed long before it magically appeared at the turn of the 20th century, with a somewhat different appearance, due to years of bad restoration and reworking. Areas of the painting had been poorly overpainted to mask the figure’s youthful and feminine appearance, hiding the exquisite, delicate features synonymous with Da Vinci’s work.
"Salvator Mundi" (photographed c.1905)
The work, however, had also acquired an ‘attributed’ moniker, despite the available provenance and resources of it’s existence and authenticity, and was eventually sold in 1958 for 45pounds as a work by the ‘Circle of Da Vinci’, not the Master himself. Unfortunately for the previous owner, after a serious attempt of restoration in 2007, experts confirmed it’s authentic status as a ‘real’ Leonardo Da Vinci, the second authentic Da Vinci discovered in the 20th century, making 20 originals in total. The painting was sold to a Russian billionare in 2012 for an undisclosed amount, and on November 15, 2017, achieved the record price for an artwork sold of $US400 ($US450.3 incl. BP) million, at Christie’s New York City, eclipsing the previous record holders of Willem De Kooning, Paul Cezanne and Paul Gauguin.
Previous Record Holders: Willem De Kooning, Paul Cezanne & Paul Gauguin
The auction of this unprecedented, historical work had been talked about in auction circles for a very long time before it was announced earlier this year that Christie’s would have the honour of selling this piece. The painting was marketed and placed on public display for months before the sale in order to attract the largest number of prospective buyers around the globe. I had the pleasure of seeing the work the morning of the sale, and it was amazing to be one of the last people to see it before the work was auctioned later in the night.
The evening of the auction was tense. Standing in the reception with an impeccably dressed crowd of international attendees patiently waiting for our tickets was just as entertaining as the actual auction. Eavesdropping into many conversations, I heard many French speakers, Russian speakers, Mandarin speakers, the list goes on. There were many quality works in this “Post War & Contemporary” sale including archetypal paintings by Basquiat and Rothko, but everyone was really there to see the Da Vinci.
Jean-Michel Basquiat & Mark Rothko in Christie's 'Post War & Contemporary Paintings' Nov 15, 2017
Once the auction started, Lot 9B came up very quickly, but it was to stay the focus for 15-20 exciting, rollercoaster, agonizing minutes. Auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen swayed from side to side of the podium trying to pull bids from the audience, but the real battle came from the army of staff with phone bidders pinned inside a small box to the side of the auctioneer. The bidding began at $US100 million, a conservative start, but after talking to staff afterwards, most had their own forecasts, well above the estimate of $US100-135 million. But none would match the enormity of the final bid. After moving in increments of $US10-20million, it slowed down significantly as low as $US2million per bid, which still is nothing to sneeze at. Every time the bidding reached an $US100million milestone, the crowd would react with cheers of joy and hysteria. Some minutes would contain a flurry of bids, then there would be silence for a minute, leaving Jussi the opportunity to talk up the audience. At one point, at $US240million, the auctioneer was ready to drop the hammer before one phone bidder jumped in at the last minute.
Every so often one phone bidder bid a large bid, well above what the auctioneer was asking. In the auction world, it is a technique used to throw of the competing bidders, for them to lose hope. It is a very interesting technique I’ve seen work many times before, but for serious bidders, it shows a weakness in the opposing bidder. However, in this case, as the bidding jumped from $US370million to $US400million in one last bid, it was enough to drop the hammer. The crowd erupted in applause and it was a joy to witness such a incredible feat, one that I don’t think will be topped very soon. I was contacted by Ellen Patterson, a friend and producer at Ten Eyewitness News not long after the auction, and I was interviewed for the for the prime time feature to be aired that night in Australia:
WHY SO VALUABLE?
A fairly unknown fact is that Leonardo Da Vinci was a respected artist in his lifetime, but not one of the most famous. His work was certainly not admired and cherished anywhere near what it is today. The ‘Mona Lisa’ is viewed as the world’s most valuable painting with an insurance value of $US1trillion. But in the early 20th century, the work was relatively unknown to the greater world, despite taking pride of place in the Louvre in Paris. This all changed in late 1911, half a year before the RMS Titanic sunk.
A long story short, on 21 August 1911, Italian native and former Louvre employee, Vincenzo Perrugia, walked into the museum early on a Monday morning, took the Mona Lisa from the wall, retreated to a back stairway, removed it from it’s frame, and vanished. He kept the painting hidden in a trunk under his bed in his meager Paris apartment for over two years. The theft was frontpage news around the world, not only because of how brazen the crime was, but also because no one actually witnessed the crime or could identify the thief. Over the next two years, the media reported on the case constantly. Several suspects were interrogated, including Pablo Picasso, whom was exonerated from stealing the ‘Mona Lisa’, but was convicted of possessing ancient artefacts stolen from the Louvre. As the legend of the missing painting grew, the pressure to find it grew exponentially because of constant media attention worldwide. Finally in late 1913, Peruggia was caught trying to sell the painting to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, claiming he was restoring a national treasure to it’s rightful owner. He was arrested and charged. He spent only one year in prison, but he became a national hero, and the Mona Lisa’s reputation grew to mythic proportions, becoming the most well-known, replicated and valuable painting in the world.
Vincenzo Peruggia (1881-1925)
THE ‘OTHER’ MONA LISA
As the most famous painting in the world, the Mona Lisa has been copied and replicated countless times over the years. Most of these copies were completed many years after Da Vinci’s death. However, a recent restoration job in 2012 of a Mona Lisa copy at the Prado Museum in Madrid, unveiled the earliest copy of Da Vinci’s masterpiece. In fact the painting was so early, that it was thought to have been painted at the exact time Da Vinci was painting his own work (around 1500) by one of his students in his very own studio. There is even a chance the sitter, thought to be Lisa Gherardini, was posing live for both artists as they simultaneously painted side by side. I remember visiting the Prado in 2015, not long after the restoration job, and being taken back with the quality of this painting and dumbfounded why no one was crowding around it like the Da Vinci ‘Mona Lisa’ in Paris. In my opinion, this version is a more complete and arguably a more accomplished work, as can be seen in the luminous colours and wonderful background landscape. But you be the judge.
"Mona Lisa" (1503) by Leonardo Da Vinci, & The Prado copy (c.1503-16)
A FAMILY CONNECTION
Before the sale I purchased the Christie’s catalogue dedicated to the history of the ‘Salvator Mundi’ but hadn’t had the time to browse through it before the auction. On the dirty train carriage back to my apartment in Queens, I was reading the catalogue preparing for my interview with Ten Eyewitness News. Looking at the provenance of the work, I read that the first British monarch to purchase and own the painting was Charles I, who was disgraced and beheaded for high treason in 1649, by which time his art collection (and throne) was passed onto his son, Charles II.
King Charles I of England (1600-1649)
Now what most people do not know is that Charles I was connected to a loyal Royalist leader, enforcer, supporter, close friend and descendent of William the Conqueror, Lord Arthur Capell, 1st Baron Capell of Hadham. So close to the King was Capell, that he joined him on the executioner’s block and lost his head for the same charges as the monarch. Although spelt differently, we share the same surname and due to the rarity of the surname, there is a very good chance I could related to him.
Lord Arthur Capell, 1st Baron Capell of Hadham (1608-1649)
So Capell, due to his close relationship to the King, could have possibly viewed the ‘Salvator Mundi’ personally back when Charles I owned the painting four hundred years ago. This means if I were related, it would be an incredible coincidence, to witness the same painting firsthand, four centuries later. The art world is a funny place!! L.