It’s incredibly rare for a painting by one of the Old Masters to go up for public auction, much less so when said painter has less than 20 pieces in existence and the majority of them will never leave museum walls. The art market is a bonkers place with its own complex ecosystem that excludes anyone without millions in the bank but there is something to be said for seeing a genuine Leonardo da Vinci piece get into an auction room and sell for a record breaking $450.3m.
Salvator Mundi (or Saviour of the World) is the only work by the artist thought to be in private hands. If you do own something like this, you bloody hold onto it, because originally, it was sold at auction in 1958 for a measly £45, although at that time, it was believed to have been painted by one of Leonardo’s followers and not the man himself.
Some things to know about the art market: It’s big, it’s flush with money, and it’s mostly centred on works of the past 150 years. A chunk of the major sales also happen privately, so we don’t get the spectacle of the public auction. It’s rare for the buyers to reveal themselves too, be it out of privacy or security or just because you’re so damn rich that you can do shit like this and not even have to brag about it.
Take a look at the most expensive paintings ever and the artists’ names will be familiar - Cézanne, Gaugin, Pollock, Rothko, Rembrandt, Picasso, Klimt, van Gogh - because for obvious reasons, the bigger the artist, the higher the price. Picasso does well at auctions because everyone knows who he is.
The fates of these paintings post-sale tends to be disappointing for us art lovers. Private sellers keep them for their collections and don’t allow the world to enjoy them as art should be. Take the fate of the famous van Gogh painting, Portrait of Dr. Gachet. You’ll be familiar with it but the chances are you haven’t seen the real thing, because in 1990 a famous Japanese businessman named Ryoei Saito bought it for $82.5m at Christie’s in New York, making it the most expensive painting ever at the time. He went broke a few years later and claimed he’d burned the painting, although there’s no proof of this, but sadly we’re not sure where the painting is now. It was rumoured his family sold it to an Austrian hedge fund manager, who then sold it to an unknown buyer when he too hit money problems.
Wherever the da Vinci piece ends up - and there are still doubters in the art world who think it’s not even a da Vinci piece - I hope the world will be able to see it. When art becomes the bastion of the rich, an exclusive community that denies entrance to the rest of the world, it stops being art in many ways and becomes capital. If you’re interested in the phenomenon of the art market, check out this BBC documentary (that’s a few years out of date) on the most expensive paintings ever.