Christie’s bellwether postwar and contemporary evening sale in New York this November will be led by a different kind of blockbuster lot, one that is about 500 years older than anything that typically appears in the auction: Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, made around 1500 and presumed lost until discovered early this century. Believed to be the last Leonardo in private hands, it is estimated to sell for $100 million.
The work was revealed this morning at a flashy press conference at Christie’s New York headquarters at Rockefeller Center, where two doors slid open to reveal the gleaming portrait of Jesus Christ, the members of the press jostling to get pictures on their phones.
What was not discussed at the press conference, however, was the work’s involvement in a variety of legal complaints and international art-dealer intrigues.
In the early 2000s, the work was owned by a consortium of dealers including Warren Adelson, president of Adelson Galleries, and dealers Alexander Parish and Robert Simon, after Parish picked up a canvas at an estate sale that he believed to be a Leonardo copy. He paid just $10,000 for the work. After the work was restored, it was authenticated as a work by the man himself—a miraculous find—and it received its formal coronation when it was unveiled to the public at the National Gallery in London in 2011. Two years later, it was sold to dealer Yves Bouvier in a private sale brokered by Sotheby’s for between $75 million and $80 million.
Bouvier then sold it to the Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev for $127.5 million, netting the dealer a margin of almost $50 million. Upon learning of the mark-up in the sale and others, Rybolovlev became suspicious of his art broker’s pricing decisions, and eventually filed a criminal complaint in Monégasque court alleging a scheme that overcharged him a total of $1 billion over 40 sales.
In addition, the consortium that originally sold the work threatened to sue Sotheby’s for its involvement in the sale, alleging that they got shortchanged. Sotheby’s filed its own complaint in federal court in Manhattan last November, asking a judge to rule that it was not liable for any potential misdeeds in the private deal between Bouvier and Rybolovlev.
When asked whether Salvator Mundi’s involvement in complaints filed across the world would affect its sale, or at least the optics of it, Christie’s postwar and contemporary chairman, Loic Gouzer, who secured the work, said, “We cannot comment about sellers, but it has every passport, every visa.”
Gouzer emphasized that the story is about the work itself, and, after noting at the press conference that there are fewer than 20 works by Leonardo known to exist, said, “Finding a new one is rarer than finding a new planet.”
Despite being half a millennium old, it’s being sold in the contemporary sale to complement the auction’s other blockbuster lot: Andy Warhol’s Sixty Last Suppers (1986), a Warhol painting of Leonardo’s masterpiece silkscreened 60 times so that it stretches to the same massive size as the original. It holds an estimate of $50 million. (Both the Leonardo and the Warhol carry third-party guarantees.)
“Standing in front of this momentous canvas, the viewer is fully immersed by Leonardo’s vision, but seen through the eyes of Andy Warhol,” the house’s contemporary chairman, Alex Rotter, said. “Many paintings are described as a tour-de-force—this is Warhol’s.”
The work is key to understanding Warhol as a deeply religious man, and many consider it the finest work made during his final months on earth. Commissioned by dealer Alexander Iolas, who then had a gallery in Milan, Warhol traveled to Italy for the opening in January 1987, and when he returned complained of stomach pain but refused to go to the doctor. He had a deep gallbladder infection, and by the time he admitted himself to NewYork-Presbyterian in late February, it was too late to save him, and he died after surgery on the 22nd.
The work returned to Milan earlier this year, when it was shown at the Museo del Novecento from March until May.
The pomp and circumstance surrounding the announcement of both works was a display of chutzpah rarely seen from Christie’s—the auction house said it had not staged such an unveiling before. The contemporary team appeared unbowed after the star lot of its London sales, Francis Bacon’s Study of Red Pope 1962. 2nd version 1971, failed to find a buyer last Friday.
Salvator Mundi will tour Christie’s flagships around the world before returning to New York to be sold at the postwar and contemporary art evening auction on November 15.