Opinion: $450 million for Christ — the art market's perversion of a symbol

The recent Neymar football transfer was emblematic of the obscene games of the ultra-rich. With the record auction of Leonardo da Vinci's "Salvator Mundi," the art world now has its own symbol, says Torsten Landsberg.

The image has been turned into a symbol. An unnamed bidder paid nearly half a billion dollars to acquire the "Salvator Mundi," a work that was — probably / perhaps / no one knows — painted by Italian Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci.

Read more: Leonardo da Vinci painting smashes auction record at $450 million

No need to point out that this money, the equivalent of around €380 million, could have been invested in far more socially meaningful ways.

Current events speak for themselves: the Global Wealth Report, published by Credit Suisse just a day before Wednesday's auction in New York, found that the richest one percent of the planet owns half of the world's wealth.

Business | 14.11.2017

The "Salvator Mundi" auction feels like a staged mockery confirming this infinite gap between the rich and poor.

DW culture editor Torsten Landsberg

A 250-percent gain

The "Salvator" previously belonged to Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, who bought the painting in 2013 for $127.5 million. He accused his Swiss art dealer of cheating him, as it was revealed that the dealer paid $80 million for it just a few days before reselling it with a hefty profit. Rybolovlev's 250-percent gain after Wednesday's sale might help soothe the pain.  

Last summer, the €222-million-euro transfer of forward Neymar was seen as a sign of the moral decline of the football industry. The art world, just like football, has turned into a real-life Monopoly game, in which oligarchs, sheikhs and Asian billionaires move around their endless piles of cash, some of it gained under dubious circumstances.

Read more: 'Football is turning into a circus-like event'

The Leonardo da Vinci auction has simply pushed the limits of this game to an even more obscene level.

As if the bidders truly were using play money, the bids initially climbed by tens of millions, then by fives, until the bid reached $260 million, finally slowing down to increases of $2 million. The 19-minute-long tug of war between the last five bidders drove the painting to smash all previous auction records, reaching over four times more than Christie's presale estimate of $100 million.

Disputed authenticity

Experts from all over the world have spent years analyzing the painting. Some still doubt that it was actually painted by Leonardo himself; it might have been created by one of his students. In addition, the painting really isn't in a great condition, either.

But those concerns didn't really seem to matter during this auction; the painting rather served as a trophy. A person's life must be inconceivably boring when they need such a status symbol to enhance it.

You don't have to be religious to recognize the perversion in the symbolism of this image. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled": these are some of the words of wisdom attributed to Jesus, who is depicted as the "Savior of the world" on the painting that's currently the world's most expensive. For now, anyway, as the game of the super-rich will certainly continue.

Most expensive artworks sold at auction

Monet's 'Meules': $110.7 million

The French painter Claude Monet created multiple landscape series that depict the same subject in different types of light and seasons, showing off his ability to capture atmosphere. The painting "Meules" (1890), from his "Haystacks" series, fetched $110.7 million (€98 million) at a Soethby's auction — the record for a Monet and the first impressionist painting to cross the $100-million threshold.

Most expensive artworks sold at auction

Da Vinci's 'Salvator Mundi': $450.3 million

Created around 1500, this painting of Christ attributed to Leonardo da Vinci is one of the master's 20 still existing paintings. In 1958 "Salvator Mundi" was sold for just $60 because it was thought to be a copy. But it fetched more than four times Christie's pre-sale estimate on November 15, 2017, when it was sold for over $450 million (€382 million) — setting a world record for auctioned art.

Most expensive artworks sold at auction

Picasso's 'Women of Algiers': $179.4 million

From 1954-55, Pablo Picasso did a series of 15 paintings inspired by Delacroix's "Les Femmes d'Alger," with versions named "A" through "O." He started them after the death of Henry Matisse, as a tribute to his friend and artistic rival. "Version O" broke the world record for an auction sale, selling for $179.4 million (167.1 million euros) at Christie's in May 2015.

Most expensive artworks sold at auction

Modigliani's 'Reclining Nude': $170.4 million

At a Christie's auction held in November 2015, seven potential buyers spent nine frantic minutes bidding on this painting. It was finally snapped by a telephone bidder from China. The nude, painted in 1917-18, provoked a scandal at its first exhibition in Paris. The police shut down the art show after a crowd gathered outside the window.

Most expensive artworks sold at auction

Modigliani's 'Nude lying on her left side': $157.2 million

Modigliani's work "Nu couché (sur le côté gauche)" caused such a controversy when it was first shown in Paris in 1917 that the police had to close the exhibition. The Italian artist's oil painting became the most expensive artwork to have been sold at New York auction house Sotheby's in May 2018.

Most expensive artworks sold at auction

Klimt's 'The Woman in Gold': $135 million

This 1907 painting by Gustav Klimt is considered one of the most elaborate and representative of his "golden phase." In 2006, it was sold through a private sale brokered by Christie's for a record sum for a painting, $135 million. That same year, Jackson Pollock's classic drip painting "No. 5 1948" broke that record, obtaining $140 million through another private sale.

Most expensive artworks sold at auction

Van Gogh's 'Portrait of Dr. Gachet': $149.7 million

Van Gogh allegedly said of the homeopathic doctor Dr. Gachet, whom he painted here in 1890, that "he was sicker than I am." The plant is a foxglove, which is used to make the drug digitalis. In 1990, the work was auctioned off to Ryoei Saito, Japan's second-largest paper manufacturer, for $82.5 million, making it the world's priciest painting at the time (the price above has been adjusted).

Most expensive artworks sold at auction

Bacon's 'Three Studies of Lucian Freud': $142.4 million

This 1969 triptych documents Francis Bacon's friendship and rivalry with fellow painter Lucian Freud. At the time it was sold, in November 2013, it obtained the highest price for a work of art at an auction, until Picasso - and now Modigliani - surpassed that record in 2015.

Most expensive artworks sold at auction

Renoir's 'Dance at Moulin de la Galette': $141.7 million

This 1876 work by Impressionist master Renoir depicts a dance venue for high society on the outskirts of Paris, the Moulin de la Galette. One of Renoir's most famous works, it exudes the joie de vivre that is characteristic of his style. In 1990, the work was purchased for $78.1 million (adjusted price above) by Japanese buyer Ryoei Saito, along with van Gogh's "Portrait of Dr. Gachet."

Most expensive artworks sold at auction

Picasso's 'Boy with a Pipe': $130.7 million

This portrait of an adolescent holding a pipe and wearing a garland of flowers in his hair was created during the Spanish master's "Rose Period" in 1905. Just a little under a century later, the painting fetched an impressive sum of $104.2 million at a Sotheby's auction in 2004 (price adjusted above).

Most expensive artworks sold at auction

Munch's 'The Scream': $119.9 million

This agonizing character painted by Edvard Munch is one of the most iconic paintings in the world. The Expressionist artist had actually made four versions of it: Three are in Norwegian museums, and the fourth one was sold for the screeching price of $119.9 million in May 2012 at Sotheby's, which would be adjusted to $130.7 million today.

Most expensive artworks sold at auction

Picasso's 'Young Girl with a Flower Basket': $115 million

Picasso is well represented among the highest earning painters. His 1905 masterpiece "Fillette a la corbeille fleurie" ("Young Girl with a Flower Basket") was sold – along with two other Rose Period paintings – by the artist himself to writer Gertrude Stein in a sale that helped launch his career. The work, which was later part of David and Peggy Rockefeller's collection, sold for $115 million.

Most expensive artworks sold at auction

Picasso's 'Nude, Green Leaves and Bust': $106.5 million

Inspired by his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walther, Picasso created this painting in a single day in 1932. If you add the eight minutes and six seconds it took for the auction record bid at Christie's in May 2010, it still appears to be well-invested time. Its price could be adjusted to $115.7 million today.