The “art investment” world is a closed club dominated by a couple dozen major collectors who utilize a couple dozen principal art curators or advisors. These individuals then hype and manipulate the art pieces of which the most inflated are sold at highbrow auctions. There is also a group of “art critics” who pontificate on the artists and their work.
One of these is James Elkins, who has written an expose on this racket called “Art Critiques: A Guide.” He points to a social and cultural issue raised on Winter Watch’s pages: hyper-tolerance, or the acceptance of about everything except for intolerance. He states:
“Art criticism is in worldwide crisis, [it is] diaphanous … like a veil, floating in the breeze of cultural conversations and never quite settling anywhere… critics have begun to avoid judgments altogether, preferring to describe or evoke the art rather than say what they think of it.”
Avoiding criticism and judgement has opened a trapdoor to a free for all in the trading of art of dubious quality. And, increasingly, in a world devoid of true price discovery, we see the emergence of marks or suckers to fleece.
This came to a head on the evening of Nov. 15. 2017. Christie’s strategically placed a Renaissance period painting in the category of Post-War & Contemporary Art in order to tap deeper-pocketed buyers. Lot 9B, an oil on panel measuring 25 7/8 x 18, called “Salvator Mundi,” is said to have been painted by master Leonardo da Vinci.
In 1958, “Salvator Mundi” was auctioned by Sotheby’s for £45 ($126), sold to someone identified only as “Kuntz.” In the sales brochure, the artist credited with creating the near-$150 painting was Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, a young painter from Lombardy who worked in the studio of Leonardo da Vinci.
After the “Kuntz” purchase, the painting was not seen again for over half a century. Then, at an estate sale in 2005, a New York art dealer named Alexander Parish purchased it for $10,000.
Next, Parish and a consortium of fellow dealers — including Sheldon Adelson and Robert Simon — “authenticated” the painting as a genuine Leonardo. They then sold it to Yves Bouvier, the Freeport King, in 2013 for an astonishing $80 million.
Bouvier then immediately flipped the painting to Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev (the owner of AS Monaco) for $127.5 million. Rybolovev is a most interesting character himself’; but, for the purposes of this article, let’s just say he’s no stranger to buying and flipping hot-air assets.
Rybolovlev purchased “Salvator” blindly as part of a $2.1 billion collection of some 37 pieces that Bouvier had put together for him. When Rybolovlev discovered Bouvier’s gigantic markup on “Salvator,” he filed both civil and criminal suits in both Monaco and Singapore claiming fraud and accusing Bouvier’s consortium of “significantly overcharging him.”
Source: St. Louis Fed
In 2016, Rybolovlev decided to pass along the Old Maid card to Christie’s auction house to recover whatever he could. The cognoscenti were curious as to whether Rybolovlev would be forced to take a nasty haircut on the overpriced Leonardo purchased just four years earlier, according to Al Jazeera:
A Russian billionaire believes he was swindled when he bought it for $127.5 million. This week he will find out if he was right.
Going into the auction, the Christie’s sale was centered almost exclusively around validation and authentication, indicating that there wasn’t any great expectation that a headline-grabbing price would be achieved.
The expected sale price was well short of the record for a piece of art sold at auction which had been fetched through the sale of Pablo Picasso’s “The Women of Algiers (Version O)” for $179.4 million in 2015.
When the auctioneer’s gavel came down after an electric bidding process, the formerly disputed Leonardo — which was the subject of a multi-million dollar lawsuit over fraudulent over-charging — changed hands once again. This time, for $450.3 million from an “anonymous collector.” This nearly half a billion dollars was handed over despite an enormous amount of debate over the authenticity, Bloomberg reports:
Even before Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi went to auction Wednesday night at Christie’s in New York, naysayers from around the art world were savaging its authenticity. Various advisers were muttering darkly, both online and in the auction previews. A day before the sale, New York magazine’s Jerry Saltz wrote that though he’s “no art historian or any kind of expert in old masters,”just “one look at this painting tells me it’s no Leonardo.”
Shortly after the gavel came down, the New York Times published a piece by the critic Jason Farago wherein—after also noting that he’s “not the man to affirm or reject its attribution” — he declared that the painting is “a proficient but not especially distinguished religious picture from turn-of-the-16th-century Lombardy, put through a wringer of restorations.”
Had the buyer of the most expensive painting in the world just purchased a piece of junk?
“All of the most relevant people believe it’s by Leonardo, so the rather extensive criticism that goes ‘I don’t know anything about old masters, but I don’t think it’s by Leonardo’ shouldn’t ever have gone to print,” says British old masters dealer Charles Beddington. “Yes, it’s a picture that needed to be extensively restored. But the fact that it’s unanimously accepted as a Leonardo shows it’s in good enough condition that there weren’t questions of authenticity.”
Who Was the Anonymous Buyer of ‘Salvator Mundi’?
The New York Times describes the tour of rapper 2 Chainz with Ana Maria Celis, a Christie’s vice president. Ms. Celis had a proposal.
“Let’s just say you’re my client today,” she said. 2 Chainz wasn’t having it.
“We’re going to be friends,” he said, as he wrapped his arm around her.
“Let’s walk and talk.”
During the preview, 2 Chainz offered his thoughts on the Leonardo:
[NYT] Wearing a black Supreme hoodie, red-and-white track pants, white Balenciaga sneakers and maybe five pounds of gold chains, 2 Chainz rolled into the auction house a few minutes after 4pm on a windy Tuesday with a crew that included a stylist, a personal photographer, a publicist and a bodyguard.
He moved through Christie’s with the eager, excitable air of a dutiful student, fist-pounding and taking selfies with security guards. He respected fine art but knew little about it.
Chainz was shown Andy Warhol’s “Sixty Last Suppers,” a composition of 60 black-and-white silk-screen interpretations of Leonardo’s iconic painting, which was valued at $50 million and ended up selling for $60.87 million. He offered his critique:
[NYT] “This is the best thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” said 2 Chainz, temporarily struggling for words as he gazed at the gargantuan piece of art. “This makes me want to be a billionaire. Can you imagine having this over your dining room table? Oh my God. You’d have to have the longest dining room table in history.”
Finally, though, Chainz could stand it no longer. With the preview’s 5 p.m. closing time rapidly approaching, enough was enough.
“Take me to the big one,” he said, referring to the work that Christie’s has called ‘The Last da Vinci’.
A line of about 100 people were still waiting to catch a glimpse of the rare painting by the Italian master, but Ms. Celis led 2 Chainz again through a back door to view it without waiting.
“Oh my God. $100 million,” 2 Chainz said, referring to the estimated value and shaking his head in disbelief as he gazed upon the revered painting of Christ…
A crowd of roughly 20 people still hovered around Salvator Mundi, but with Christie’s set to close in ten minutes, security guards informed everyone it was time to leave…
Before he left, however, Chainz had one question he wanted to ask his guide.
Being a keen arbiter of luxury, 2 Chainz remained skeptical of the painting’s worth. “
So,” he said turning to face Ms. Celis. “Tell me one more time, how do we know it’s not a copy of a copy?”
Ultimately the piece proved too expensive for the rapper, as the anonymous buyer turned out out to be a Saudi prince, who made his quiet debut in the art scene with the acquisition of “Salvator Mundi,” according to The New York Times.
In the end, the buyer was someone from left field, a little-known Saudi prince who appears to have never before purchased a major artwork, as my colleague David Kirkpatrick learned from documents this week. The prince, Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud, will be lending — or donating? — the painting to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which just opened in a new building designed by Jean Nouvel. Since then conflicting reports have emerged about whether the true buyer was Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia or if Prince Bader acted as an agent for the ministry of culture of Abu Dhabi.