(Bloomberg View) -- Each time a painting sells for countless millions, it's hugely tempting to discuss billionaires' whims and starving artists. But the $450 million paid by an anonymous buyer for "Salvator Mundi," attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, is a different story. It's a testament to the true value of great art.
"Salvator Mundi," the portrait of Christ that Leonardo supposedly painted around 1500, likely for King Louis XII of France, does have something of a history as a billionaire's investment. The seller, Dmitry Rybolovlev, made his $10 billion fortune in potash, sold his Russian companies and invested a large part of the proceeds in an art collection valued by Bloomberg Billionaires at $2 billion. Since 2015, Rybolovlev has been suing Yves Bouvier, his Swiss art dealer, for allegedly overcharging him by $500 million to $1 billion as he built the collection. He also has been selling off the art. Rybolovlev acquired "Salvator Mundi" from Bouvier for $127 million (substantially more than the $75 million to $80 million Bouvier paid for it), so, given Christie's share of the final price, he made a profit of $273 million -- enough to recoup up to half of what he says Bouvier owes him.
Why could the painting be worth so much more to the new owner than to Rybolovlev, when he acquired it in 2013? When he bought it, it had already been generally accepted as a work of Leonardo's and put on display in London's National Gallery. One possible answer is that the potash billionaire kept it, like other works he'd acquired, in freeports -- huge warehouses built for art in low-tax regions. "Salvator Mundi," however, has the potential to be another "Mona Lisa," sparking speculation that a museum may have acquired it rather than a private collector. One can only hope.
The "Mona Lisa" has made the reputation of the Louvre as a superstar museum, the third most visited in the world. It's the only painting there to which there's a direct path from the entrance and the only one people line up to see and photograph. Many of those visitors are disappointed, of course: The painting isn't large, it sits behind thick glass and a cordon prevents up-close inspection by viewers. But its phenomenon is much broader than what can actually be seen at the Louvre. It became the prime jewel of the Paris museum collection, ahead of previously higher-valued works by Raphael and Titian, when it was stolen in 1911 and the French newspapers whipped up a frenzy about its loss so that people waited in line to see the empty spot on the wall where it had hung.
The "Mona Lisa" has been a reliable generator of stories ever since -- about it being Leonardo's self-portrait, the symbolism behind it, most recently about it and a copy owned by the Prado museum in Madrid possibly conceived as parts of the first stereoscopic image in history. On the rare occasions the "Mona Lisa" has traveled, hundreds of thousands of people flocked to it; when it was brought to the New York in 1963, a million people came to see it.
Would 7.5 million people a year pay an average of 9 euros to visit the Louvre if La Gioconda, as the painting is sometimes called, weren't there? If just a million of them passed on it, the museum would lose the entire amount paid for "Salvator Mundi" over 50 years.
"Salvator Mundi" is an even smaller canvas, but it has some of the same magical qualities. It's compelling as a painting, with Christ's sharply painted blessing hand drawing a viewer's attention in the first few seconds and His misty, hypnotic gaze inevitably taking over; it's a transfixing experience. There's also enough masterfully lifelike detail to peruse once you extricate yourself from that powerful stare. And the world hasn't really heard its story yet -- the origins of the canon, the French royal commission, the painstaking authentication, the Russian oligarch and his fling with high art. Add to this the element of novelty and the attraction of enormous sums of money, and you have the anchor for an ambitious museum aiming at superstardom, another Louvre.
The previous record-holder as the most expensive painting in the world, Picasso's "Women of Algiers (Version O)," sold for $179 million in 2015, wouldn't have worked for the purpose. It didn't have the air of exquisite rarity, and better work by prolific Picasso could be seen elsewhere. Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, a member of the Qatari royal family, didn't buy it to exhibit, anyway.
I hope that's not the case with "Salvator Mundi." I hope Roland Augustine, co-owner of gallery Luhring Augustine, who attended the auction, was onto something when he described the purchase as a "business decision." "They'll put it in a museum and have people lining around the corner to see it," he said.
It's difficult to imagine anyone hoping to make much of a profit on a resale after paying such an outrageous price. But building a museum's pitch for visitors around it could be a way to make economic sense out of the deal.
As for starving artists trying to resist the pull down-market, there may be a message for them in the "Salvator Mundi" sale if the painting ends up as a public museum's jewel. Artwork that a bank or a wealthy client could put on their walls may sell for millions of dollars. Masterpieces by long-dead painters may sell for tens of millions. But a work that can be the crown jewel, the main attraction for millions looking for a brush with true art, can be valued higher than a good-sized company or a palace. If artistic ambition doesn't stretch so far these days, it should.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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