“Savior” For Sale: Is This Da Vinci Painting Worth $100 Million?

Most of the time, art news doesn’t get front page treatment in general interest news outlets, but occasionally one comes across exceptions. Such an exception cropped up just yesterday afternoon, when both the art press and the mainstream media reacted to the announcement that the “Salvator Mundi” (“Savior of the World”), the only known painting by Leonardo Da Vinci remaining in private hands, will be auctioned next month at Christie’s in New York, with an estimated sale price of $100 million. Rediscovered and authenticated by experts only a few years ago, this extremely rare work is attracting the kind of public attention and curiosity that those of us who plod along following developments in the art world almost never get to see.

Salv

As Christie’s explains in a very thorough press release and accompanying video announcing the sale, the painting dates to around 1500, and represents Christ as the Savior of the world. The pose and imagery in this picture have a long history in Christian art, but Da Vinci’s particular take on this subject is somewhat startling; while Art Net called it “spooky”, I think the more appropriate word here would be, “intense”. (If you want genuinely creepy, Da Vinci’s “St. John the Baptist” takes the cake, as far as I’m concerned.)

Baptist

Now that the “Salvator Mundi” is on the public radar, there is going to be an enormous amount of interest in both the picture itself, and what it will ultimately sell for. As to the former, take for example the following excerpt, from an instant message that I received overnight:

“Is it my imagination, or is Christ’s face bisected vertically by shadow and emphasis for artistic effect? Indeed, the impression was so strong that I had to draw a line on my monitor to determine that his eyes were on the same level, so disconnected they seemed.

If my impression is accurate, I’d imagine this was an intentional reference to His divine and human natures. Thoughts?”

To be fair to my interlocutor, I’m not versed enough in Da Vinci’s methods or intentions to be able to state with any certainty that what he describes was the artist’s intent, particularly given the artist’s somewhat heterodox views on Christianity, but it’s certainly a plausible argument. We know that Da Vinci was one of the earliest Renaissance artists to remove any haloes or emblems of royalty from the portrayal of religious subjects, which would fit in with the notion of emphasizing Christ’s human nature. We also know from his many notebooks that Da Vinci studied areas of science which had a direct impact on the final appearance of his work, such as human anatomy and linear perspective. His “Vitruvian Man” drawing – another extremely well-known work of his that pops up all over the place – most clearly demonstrates this.

Vit

Part of the issue with the “Salvator Mundi” however, is that it’s not exactly in good nick. The face has clearly suffered from over-cleaning, so much so that the eyes are not nearly as intense today, in their faded state, as they would have been when they were new. That penetrating gaze which captures and holds our attention would be even more intense, if the painting was better-preserved.

As to the $100 million price tag, this seems to be a figure based more on rarity rather than overall quality. Despite being (arguably) the most famous of all Old Master painters, Da Vinci’s artistic legacy rests largely upon a handful of paintings, and of course his famous sketchbooks. He was never a prolific artist, too often experimented with technical methods that failed, and worse still he was easily distracted by other, non-artistic projects. He was also infamous for starting pictures that he never finished, as in his painting of “St. Jerome in the Wilderness”.

Jerome

Yet despite his relatively tiny output, many of Da Vinci’s surviving works have had and continue to have a profound influence not only on art, but also on theology, philosophy, psychology, fashion, literature, science, film, music, and so on. Just think of all the pop culture references you still come across on a regular basis recalling the most famous portrait in the world, his “Mona Lisa”, or the most well-known Christian painting in the world, his “Last Supper”, more than five centuries after they were painted. Da Vinci may not have created a lot of art, but of what he did create, he has no rival in terms of penetration and saturation of the popular imagination.

Mona

Last

Now truth be told, I’ve never liked Da Vinci’s work. I find his androgynous figures unappealing, his coloring murky, and his inability to see a project through to completion to be a character flaw, rather than a mark of great intelligence. There does come a point at which, whatever inherent genius someone may have, their inability to complete the task before them within the time allotted becomes a stumbling block, rather than a trifle to be overlooked. You’re of course welcome to disagree, but I’ve always been more impressed with the almost celestial combination of genius AND facility in the work of Raphael and Mozart than I am with the tortured writhing of Michelangelo and Beethoven.

At the same time, I don’t think that $100 million is too outlandish a sum to name for the sale of the only known Da Vinci painting that is, in fact, available for sale. While the “Salvador Mundi” is never going to become as famous as some of the other Da Vinci images that are part of our collective consciousness, it is nevertheless a hugely significant work from an art history perspective. As a rare object, even one that is something of a shadow of its former self, it will no doubt attract a and deserve a lot of attention from those who could afford the exceptionally high price of becoming its next owner.

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Butter and Basketball: The Price Of Contemporary Art

A recurring theme in these pages is that of valuation in the art market. Having spent a decent amount of time and some considerable lolly in studying the art trade at Sotheby’s in London, I like to keep up with trends on the business side of things, particularly when they intersect with museums and public collections. Now bear with me, gentle reader, because this morning I’m going to be sharing a couple of different art stories with you that don’t really have much of anything to do with one another, but I think you’ll see my point in the end.

Over on Art Market Monitor, there’s a report about Art Bridges, an art lending foundation headed by Alice Walton – of Walmart fame – that has recently gone on what that publication refers to as something of a “buying spree”. Ms. Walton, who is also the foundress of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, is focusing on getting more museums to share items in their collections in collaborative exhibitions with other museums, so that these works can be seen by more people and spend less time locked away in storage. On the surface, that’s certainly a very laudable effort.

Except…well.

What caught my eye in the piece was a reference to the foundation purchasing a piece titled “Untitled”, by American sculptor Robert Gober. I’m familiar with his work, from having seen it at The Hirshhorn here in Washington and at The Whitney in New York. As you can see, this particular example appears to be an unwrapped stick of butter, although in fact it’s made of beeswax, wood, and wax paper. What you can’t tell from the photo is that this is the biggest stick of “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” you’ve ever seen, measuring about 4 feet long.

butter

Now we can agree that, from a *craft* point of view, this is a pretty neat item. It looks just like the real thing, right down to the blue labelling on the unwrapped wax paper, which we see from the underside in reverse. In its way, it’s in the vein of similar food objects which artisans have created for centuries: colorful glass grapes from the island of Murano outside of Venice, for example, or wooden tea caddies in the shape of pears or apples that were popular in England and America during the Georgian period.

But, as painstakingly well-crafted as this object is, there doesn’t seem to be a reasonable basis here for justifying its price tag of $2.285 million. Because really, isn’t this just a great, big, melting slab of kitsch? Ricky Schroder could have had it in his bedroom on the 80’s sitcom “Silver Spoons”, and no one would have batted an eyelid.

This isn’t the only item acquired by the foundation whose valuation is rather head-scratching. “One Ball Total Equilibrium (Spalding Dr. J Silver Series)”, by well-known provocateur Jeff Koons, was purchased for a whopping $15.285 million at Christie’s last year. The work consists of a basketball suspended in a Perspex water tank. Interesting, perhaps, but $15 million worth of interesting? At best, it seems more of a ho-hum homage to British artist Damien Hirst – who formerly specialized in dead animals floating in tanks of formaldehyde – and doesn’t present anything particularly interesting to the viewer.

Koons

Elsewhere in the art news world, there’s an interesting factoid in The Art Newspaper this morning about a work by the Mexican Baroque painter Cristóbal de Villalpando (1649-1714), one of the most important artists in Mexican art history, which was discovered hanging in the office of the President of Fordham University in the Bronx. “The Adoration of the Magi” had been in the possession of the university for many years, but had not attracted a great deal of attention. An expert in Villalpando’s work had gone on a hunt for it some years ago, as The Art Newspaper describes, and now this work along with a number of others by the painter are part of an exhibition of his work at The Met which runs through October 15th.

Magos

How would you value this recovered masterpiece, alongside the aforementioned butter and basketball? Neither of us will ever own it, in part because I don’t have the wall space for it, and you probably don’t either. But given its age, beauty, and complexity, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Villalpando’s painting was worth far more than the two contemporary sculptures we’ve looked at today – and you’d be utterly wrong.

It’s difficult to know what this particular altarpiece would bring at auction, not that Fordham has any intention of selling it. Pieces by Villalpando come up for sale occasionally, and from my (admittedly rather quick) research, smaller-sized works by this artist will go for somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000. The price of a very old painting such as this depends on a number of factors, including the subject matter, the materials used by the artist, and the overall state of preservation.

So what would this fairly well-preserved, impressive Villalpando depiction of a beloved scene from the Christmas story, which stands over 6 feet tall, fetch under the hammer – $500,000? Perhaps $750,000 if there is some serious institutional interest? On a good day, maybe it could make over $1 million? That’s still far less than what was paid for the two contemporary sculptures which we looked at earlier.

As I said at the outset, I freely admit that comparing the work of two living American sculptors to the work of a 17th century Mexican painter is illogical: an apples and oranges argument or, if you will, a butter and basketball argument. But quite honestly, I don’t care. Logic was abandoned long ago by the people who produce, promote, and patronize most of contemporary art, and we need to call a spade a spade.

We live at a time in which purveyors of the vapid, protected from reasonable criticism by the gatekeepers of high culture and their patrons, are valued more highly than the masters of the sublime. A fool and his money are soon parted, as the old proverb goes, and so if Ms. Walton and others like her wish to be fools, they live in a free country which entitles them to do so. By the same token, however, their fellow citizens are equally entitled to not only laugh at the garbage art which they are trying to promote, but to not even go look at it. (After all, that’s what you have me for.)

What you can and should do, frankly, is go see the work of truly great artists like Villalpando and others, whether at The Met or at your local museums and galleries. Learn about them, and come to a greater appreciation of the fact that their skill still speak speaks to us down the centuries to today. Your reward will be far greater, and you will have far fewer scratches on your scalp.

Italian Treasure, American Albatross: The Perils Of Purchasing A Pontormo

For some time now, I’ve been following an international tug of war over a striking 16th century portrait by the Italian Mannerist painter Pontormo (1494-1557). The painting was purchased by a prominent American art collector from a British aristocrat two years ago. Unfortunately, what has happened since then exposes why American collectors – even those collecting objects that are far less valuable – need to be wary of doing business in other countries.

Pontormo lived in Florence for most of his life, where he studied with Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea del Sarto, among others. He’s known for his unusual religious paintings and portraiture, where his figures often have both elongated proportions, and a somewhat pensive mood that reflects his own melancholy nature. His more famous pupil Bronzino (1503-1572) took up many elements of his master’s style, and eventually became *the* society portraitist of the day. But whereas Pontormo’s portraits always seem a bit sad and introspective, Bronzino’s were all about slick self-confidence. Toward the end of his life, Pontormo produced fewer and fewer paintings, and turned in on himself to such an extent that even Bronzino couldn’t get in to see him.

Portraits by Pontormo rarely come on the market, as there are only about a dozen plus in existence, and most of these are in Italian museums. This particular image of Florentine nobleman Carlo Neroni disappeared sometime in the 18th century, but was rediscovered by an art expert back in 2008. It had been purchased by the 3rd Earl of Caledon in 1825 and passed down through his family, who had no idea what they had. The painting was loaned to the National Gallery in London, until the 7th Earl decided to sell his newly-discovered treasure. In 2015, it was purchased by American hedge fund executive J. Tomlinson Hill of Blackstone Group, for somewhat over £30 million.

Yet despite the fact that Mr. Hill is now the rightful owner of this Pontormo, matters have conspired to prevent him from doing what he wants with his property.

To begin with, Mr. Hill cannot take his painting back to the U.S., without first obtaining an art export license from the British government. This is an issue faced by American collectors around the world, not just in Britain, and not just among those with Mr. Hill’s means at their disposal. Age and value are both considerations, but in the UK, art created as recently as 1967 may require an export license, if you want to bring it back to the States.

Even if you apply for an art export license however, while you are waiting to hear if it will be approved by the British government, a British museum has the right to attempt to purchase the object from you for the price you paid for it. You don’t have to sell, but then there’s no telling what might happen to your request for an export license, either. It puts the art collector into something between a rock and a hard place.

The fact that you might be able to get your money back seems like a good option. Unfortunately for Mr. Hill, the value of the pound has declined significantly since he bought the painting in 2015 and began his long wait for a decision regarding his export license. As a result, he could lose millions of dollars if he‘s forced to sell the painting to a British art museum today.

To me, there’s something rather illogical about this situation, and it should give Americans pause before purchasing art or antiques abroad.

What, exactly, have the Brits prevented from leaving their country that’s so vitally important to their national heritage? To begin with, they didn’t even know this painting existed until recently. It isn’t as if Mr. Hill purchased a statue which stood on the façade of one of the countless cathedrals that the British stole from the Catholic church, or that he managed to pick up the bed that Princess (Alexandrina) Victoria was sleeping in at Kensington Palace when she learned that William IV had died and she was now Queen.

In fact, this painting has absolutely nothing to do with Britain whatsoever, other than the historical accident of its being located there. Pontormo was not a British artist. The subject of this painting was not a British person. The art was not even created for a British collector.

At some point in the past, someone stole or purchased this painting in Italy, and it somehow ended up being resold to a collector in the UK. It lay completely forgotten and unnoticed in the private home of a British noble family for nearly two centuries, until it was temporarily loaned to a public museum a few years ago. That, in sum, is the full extent of this painting’s tenuous connection to the British people, whose tax dollars were supposed to go toward purchasing it for a public museum.

Now granted, giving a country the chance to hold on to its cultural heritage is better than the alternative, for there are many objects in our museums – including British ones – which were stolen from other countries in order to enrich individual and national collections. However a reasonable person would conclude that there’s a difference between denying an export license for, say, a George Stubbs painting of a British racehorse, or a Hans Holbein portrait of one of Henry VIII’s courtiers, and denying an export license for a work of art which has no real connection to Britain at all. I find it difficult to fathom the argument that somehow a British museum or collector has a greater moral right to purchase this painting than does an American.

The latest news on this debacle is that Mr. Hill’s application for an export license has just been denied, and he’s also turned down the UK National Gallery’s offer to purchase the painting. He could of course try for another export license in about ten years, but that possibility seem unlikely to succeed. And I doubt very much that he would want to go through this hassle all over again a decade from now, particularly since this very rare work of art isn’t going to be getting any less valuable in the interim.

Instead of obtaining a jewel for his art collection, and one which, given his years of philanthropic support of American museums like The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian, would likely have gone to an American institution at some point in the future, Mr. Hill has now found himself with something of an albatross – albeit a very beautiful one.