US$450 million paid for Da Vinci painting of Jesus at New York auction, smashing art sales records

Gasps punctuate the protracted bidding for Salvator Mundi, the only Da Vinci still in private hands, with bids rising US$20 million at a time as two would-be buyers duel over the phone for possession of the work

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 November, 2017, 10:37am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 November, 2017, 10:53pm

A painting of Jesus by Leonardo da Vinci became by far the most expensive piece of art ever sold at auction on Wednesday when it was knocked down for US$450 million at Christie’s in New York.

Frequent gasps were heard in the sale room as Jussi Pylkkanen, Christie’s global president, drew out aggressive bids from the remaining two phone bidders after the price passed the US$200 million mark.

On several occasions, the final bids came in at US$20 million and US$30 million increments.

Eventually, Alexander Rotter, co-chairman of the Post-war and Contemporary Art department in New York, made the final US$400 million bid from a client, who will be paying US$450,312,500, including fees. The buyer’s identity was not disclosed.

The price was more than twice the old record for any work of art, set by Picasso’s Les Femmes D’Alger, which sold for US$179.4 million in May 2015.

Salvator Mundi (Saviour of the World) is believed to have been painted around 1500 for King Louis XII of France. It shows Christ holding a crystal orb in his left hand and giving blessing with his right hand.

The painting, the last Da Vinci left in private hands, has led a storied life. In the 17th century, it was owned by King Charles I of England, but all records of it disappeared for more than a century before it resurfaced in 1900.

In 1958 the painting was sold by Sotheby’s for a mere £45 before dropping out of view again until 2005 – badly damaged and partially painted over. In 2013, the Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev bought it for around US$127 million from a dealer, Yves Bouvier. Rybolovlev later accused Bouvier of overcharging him for 38 works, including the Salvator Mundi.

‘An art world miracle’: only da Vinci in private hands to auction for US$100m – after selling for US$125 in 1958

There have been lingering doubts about its authenticity when it reappeared in the market, much restored, but that did not seem to trouble the bidders in New York on Wednesday.

Hong Kong was the first stop on the painting’s global roadshow before the sale, with Asian buyers showing growing interest in Western art. At Sotheby’s evening sale of Impressionist and Modern art in New York on Tuesday, five of the top 10 lots were sold to Asian clients.

Christie’s autumn sales in Hong Kong begin on November 24. It will also feature the “Loaded Brush” private selling exhibition of Western art.