‘We Witnessed History’: Christie’s $450.3 M. Leonardo da Vinci Becomes Priciest Work of Art Ever Sold, at $785.9 M. Postwar Sale
by Nate Freeman
History was made at Christie’s postwar and contemporary evening sale on Wednesday night, when Salvator Mundi (ca. 1500), believed to be the last painting by Leonardo da Vinci in private hands, sold for $450 million, making it the most expensive art market transaction of all time. It was purchased by a client on the phone with department head Alex Rotter after a 19-minute session that involved five bidders, four on the phone and one in the room.
That total is $150 million more than what was believed to be the previous record transaction, which was recorded when Kenneth Griffin bought Willem de Kooning’s Interchange (1955) from David Geffen for $300 million in 2015. The previous record for a work sold at auction was Pablo Picasso’s The Women of Algiers (Version O), 1955, which sold at Christie’s for $179.4 million in May 2015.
That one lot accounted for more than half of the total haul for the evening, which came to $785.9 million. Some works passed after the Leonardo, in a room filled with people in disbelief, but the auction netted a respectable sell-through rate of 84 percent.
“It’s difficult to find words after such an evening,” Christie’s CEO Guillaume Cerutti said at a press conference after the sale, with Salvator Mundi installed in a gallery behind him. “But certainly, this is a great moment for the art market.”
When asked who purchased the work, Cerutti was once again at a loss for words.
“We do not comment on the identities of the buyers, I’m sorry,” he said, while adding, “The bids came from every part of the world.”
There was no mistaking that, from the get-go, this would be an auction watched not just by the market players and prognosticators but by the world at large. Television cameras dotted the plaza outside Christie’s Rockefeller Center headquarters, and reporters asked the well-heeled clientele to talk about the work that had commanded blocks-long lines at Christie’s bureaus in various cities around the globe prior to the sale.
Upstairs, the sales room was stuffed to the gills, standing room only, with attendees packed like sardines and craning their necks to get a glimpse of the rostrum. The spectacle drew not only some of the world’s biggest collectors—such as Steve Cohen and Eli Broad—but also Patti Smith, who was sitting in the front row, and Leonardo DiCaprio, in a skybox.
After the last paddle-holders snuggled into their seats, the auction began with a run of work by artists rare to auction, like Adam Pendleton and Phillipe Parreno, who scored hammer prices well beyond their high estimates, notching auction records as well. In addition to Parreno and Pendleton—and, of course, Leonardo—other artists who achieved auction records were Vija Celmins, Isamu Noguchi, and Kerry James Marshall.
Those in attendance for the night’s big lot, which was guaranteed at $100 million and thus a sure bet to at least sell in the nine digits, had to sit through eight other lots first, including Mark Rothko’s Saffron (1957), which was won by deputy chairman Maria Los for a $28 million hammer, or $32.4 million with the buyers premium.
And then came the Salvator Mundi. Auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen nonchalantly rolled out its provenance by saying that it had been “previously in the collections of three Kings of England.” He began the bidding at $70 million, and quickly chandelier bid up to $100 million, when he got a bid of $110 million from international private sales head Alexis Ashot, phone in hand. That was quickly followed by a bid by Rotter’s phone at $120 million, and a $130 million bid from Loic Gouzer—the contemporary department head who spearheaded the consignment of the work from its former owner, Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev. (It’s a bit of a black mark on the work’s storied history: Rybolovlev purchased it from the dealer Yves Bouvier for $127.5 million, but quickly realized that he had been overcharged by tens of millions of dollars, and filed a suit against the dealer in Monégasque court alleging a total of $1 billion in inflated prices over a number of transactions.)
A lone bid from the room on the far aisle was quickly topped by a bid of $170 million from Gouzer, who was standing on the rostrum to the gavel-wielder’s close right, shoulder-to-shoulder with Rotter, who came back with a quick $180 rejoinder.
Suddenly, another bidder entered the fray from directly behind them—it was François de Poortere, head of the Old Masters department, coming in hot on behalf of his phone client with a bid of $190 million. The three of them traded jabs at each other, going up in increments of $5 million until Gouzer gave it one last attempt at $215 million before limping away from battle.
It was now a two-man joust, Rotter against de Poortere, and they re-uppped in increments of $5 million until they crossed the $250 million rubicon and eventually switched to $2 million bumps. Rotter’s bidder smelled blood and made a big jump to $280 million from $270 million, but de Poortere didn’t give in and went to $282 million. When Rotter’s bidder jumped to $300 million, gasps filled the room as attendees realized that history was unfolding before their eyes, and many no doubt assumed that the gavel would soon thwack down, signaling a huge win.
But no—de Poortere edged slightly higher with a bid of $320 million, keeping the engines revving on both ends. A jump by Rotter from $332 million to $350 million prompted audible screams from the room—as if a rollercoaster had just made made a surprise freefall—but de Poortere’s bidder held on, pushing to $355 million.
Finally, with the Old Masters head tasting victory while sitting pretty at a $370 million bid, Rotter barked out “four hundred million!” to a crowd that lost its breath all at once. Even the stoic Pylkkanen looked a little woozy as he raised his gavel arm toward the ceiling, de Poortere shaking his head, and then Pylkkanen said, arm up, “and, the piece… is… sold!” smacking the gavel to raucous applause and yelling in the room.
“Look, in the moment, it’s pure focus,” Rotter told me after the sale. “And now I’m still digesting it, and I’m going to enjoy the digesting.”
The rest of the sale was denouement, as dealers and collectors started to stream out of the salesroom gobsmacked, trying to anticipate how the result could affect the future course of the art market.
“We witnessed history,” Brett Gorvy, the former Christie’s postwar chairman who now runs the gallery Lévy Gorvy, told me after the sale. “When was the last moment like this? The Rembrandts in the 1950s? The van Gogh in 1990?”
He was referring to the $82.5 million ($157.6 million when adjusted for inflation) paid by Japanese businessman Ryoei Saito for van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet, then the most ever paid for a work of art.
“We can talk about these moments in time—the van Gogh had been a watershed moment, but this took that to the next level,” he said.
“It establishes a whole new height for the art market,” said the dealer Tony Shafrazi. “What happens after this?”
Naturally, a good bit of post-sale gossip centered around just who it was on the phone with Alex Rotter who had just spent $450 million on a painting. Gorvy, who a year ago would have been on the rostrum working the phones with the team, said the winning bidder “felt very American.”
“At the end of the day, I’m more interested in the underbidder,” he said. “It must have been an institution, maybe the Getty or something.”
The dealer Thaddaeus Ropac also thought it could be an American collector, seeing as “there’s only one da Vinci in the country, and no da Vinci in New York.”
Eli Broad said he wasn’t sure who bought it, adding, “I didn’t have any idea it would go that high.”
Miami collector Don Rubell shook off a suggestion it was an American collector—despite the fact that Rotter is based in New York—and instead said he thought it was someone from Asia or the Middle East, “someone who has a museum of their own and wants to show it off. “
The collector and dealer Helly Nahmad told me, as he was walking out, “The buyer of that painting, whoever they are, they would have spent a billion dollars on that painting. They were just not going to stop.”
(One name circulated in chatter was Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who bought the bundle of Leonardo scientific writing known as the Codex Leicester at Christie’s in November 1994 for $30.8 million. Gates also happens to be worth $89.3 billion, which could explain what Gorvy called “the balls to be throwing down $30 million bidding increments.” When I mentioned the name to Rotter, he had no comment.)
After the sale, the press conference was held in front of the Salvator Mundi, which was in a roped-off room watched by three burly guards. A dozen TV crews with camera units were vying for interviews. In his remarks, Gouzer thanked the Christie’s team for accommodating the strange idea of placing a Leonardo in a contemporary sale, and then praised the extensive marketing roll-out of the work that brought it such crossover attention.
“You know, we traveled this painting around the world, and it was an amazing journey—it captured the imagination of the globe,” he said.
And with that, the press was ushered out of the room. The last Leonardo in private hands was to be taken away, delivered to an unknown location, and perhaps not seen in public for some time.
I received an email the other day that I felt was worth addressing in an article. The person who wrote asked me, "How can I capture an image based on Dynamic Symmetry composition rules and how can I enhance the power to acquire the knowledge of this system?" Even though I address both of these issues thoroughly in my user's guide, The Art of Composition: A Dynamic Symmetry User's Guide for the Modern Artist, the question is an important one and deserves further clarification.
Like the person who sent me the email above, many photographers are confused how to apply Dynamic Symmetry to their photographs because they don't have the ability to overlay grids while they are taking pictures. While this restriction might seem daunting at first, there are ways to get around this obstacle. Here's how.
Start by learning how to analyze art. And when I say art, I don't mean limit yourself to just photographs - look at drawings and paintings as well. You can learn a great deal by studying a master painters body of work. Once you have fully grasped the elements of design (figure-ground relationship, overlapping, the greatest area of contrast, perspective, the armature of the rectangle, etc.), you can then learn how to apply these techniques while you're shooting on the fly. In other words, while taking pictures, you're looking for certain qualities that make a photograph a work of art and responding to them quickly. Martine Franck talks about this in her essays on the art of photography.
By taking the time to analyze art, your learning how to become visually literate. While on the surface the term visual literacy might come across as threatening or insulting, it really isn't. Every highly trained artist throughout history, from da Vinci to Degas, all went through the process of analyzing art. In fact, it was standard practice for an artist to copy another master's work. While today this approach is frowned upon by most art teachers (because they aren't trained), in the past, it was a way for the student to learn all of the techniques of value, color theory, design and so on.
Every time you've completed a photography shoot, lay design grids over your photographs in post-processing to see how well you did. This is great practice, requires almost no effort, and drastically speeds up the learning process. Henri Cartier-Bresson used to do this by drawing the 1.5 armature of the rectangle on a piece of tracing paper. He would then lay the tracing paper on top of his contact sheets or prints to determine which images worked and which ones failed. Today, this process is much easier because you can use Lightroom and Photoshop to import pre-made design grids. If you're willing to go through this process, your visual skills will improve each time you pick up your camera. Simply put, your learning how to see like an artist.
Improving Your Knowledge on Dynamic Symmetry
Without trying to come across as an advertisement for my site, to address your other question about improving your knowledge of Dynamic Symmetry, my suggestion is to read my user's guide The Art of Composition: A Dynamic Symmetry User's Guide for the Modern Artist (Membership Edition). Even though the Free Edition is a great place to start for beginners, there is a vast amount of additional information in the Extended Membership Edition that will improve your visual literacy skills. I've spent eight years compiling the best information on design to make it easier for the artist and photographer, like you, who wants to learn more about the art of composition but don't know where to start. Essentially, I've done all the preliminary work for you and organized it into one easy to use guide.
I hope this information helps and good luck in your artistic journey for creating better photographs.
“I love clichés,” says Martin Parr, so his new book Think of Scotland, is expectedly accented with tartan and cans of Irn Bru, plus “all the things you would expect to see in Scotland: Highland games, the kilt, Scottish dancing, the food. All the things you associate with Scotland in terms of clichés are things that I like,” he says.
For over 25 years, Martin Parr has been taking photographs in Scotland. From the streets of Glasgow to an island agricultural show in Orkney, Parr has built a huge archive of photographs. This body of work – Parr’s largest previously unpublished archive – weaves together some of the expected visual iconography of Scotland, such as highland games and stunning landscapes, but all with a Parr twist that makes the expected look so unfamiliar.
On the lure that keeps calling him back to the country, Parr explains that the beauty of some areas – and the energy of others – so different from his usual surroundings is at the core of the appeal. “Firstly, it’s a very beautiful country, and second the people are great – very friendly, the social scene is very interesting,” he says. “It’s different from where I live in Bristol; it’s rougher and more engaging and quite dramatic. That difference really appeals to me.”
Parr’s view is as comprehensive as one could make, through a quarter of a century of study. As well as the major cities – “very intense” Glasgow and “beautiful” Edinburgh – he’s obsessed with the inhabited remote Scottish islands. “I’ve been to a great majority of those and ticketed them off,” he says. “There’s something magical about an island where it’s all contained, and that really appeals to me.” Continue reading.
For 15 years, Polish-born, Georgia-based freelance photographer Justyna Mielnikiewicz has been committed to discovering stories and sharing them with others using her camera. Dedicated and passionate (she would even say stubborn), Mielnikiewicz has stuck through the inevitable highs and lows of independent work to produce personal projects she is truly proud of. Her commitment to narrative photography was recognized first with a grant from the Aftermath Project, which helped her produce a powerful body of work in Ukraine. Then in 2016, she was awarded the prestigious W. Eugene Smith Fund grant in humanistic photography, which came with $30,000 to support further projects.
Next month, she will be hosting a workshop in Georgia in collaboration with Tbilisi Photo Festival (more info below). In advance of her workshop, LensCulture managing editor Alexander Strecker exchanged emails with Mielnikiewicz to learn more about her dogged pursuit of visual storytelling that has taken her far from her roots in Poland — Continue reading.
Josef Koudelka started using a camera in panoramic format in 1986 while participating in the photographic mission of the Interministerial Delegation for Regional Planning and Development (DATAR), whose objective was to “represent the French landscape of the 1980s”. He thus crisscrossed France, then the entire world, to take stock of modern humanity’s influence on landscape.
These images, which are on show at Foto / Industria Biennial in Bologna until November 19, 2017, bear witness to major human works, ranging from factories to quarries, or enormous mining complexes and abandoned zones. They carry the reader into inaccessible and little-known areas, between sublime and disarray, to witness the imposing reality of industry that we try now to erase. Continue reading.
Self-proclaimed "populist" photographer, Martin Parr, has ruffled feathers, tickled funny bones, and touched raw nerves around the world. His unflinching eye and unrepentant camera have caught us humans unaware of where we are and how we act — and how we might appear in some moments to a ruthless witness armed with a loaded camera.
As a true master of social commentary, he captures humanity in all of its follies. He frames these revealing moments with quirky precision and presents them in ultra-vivid color.
Martin Parr and I met in the outdoor courtyard of his hotel in Arles this summer for a lively conversation over breakfast. In this tightly edited 10-minute audio interview for Lens Culture, Parr talks about irony, searching for vulnerability, British humor, photo books, the secret history of photography, and more. Enjoy! Click here to listen to the interview.
I recently heard a story about a photographer who was upset after they received a portfolio review. Apparently, the photographer was angry that the person doing the critique didn't take into consideration what the photographer "felt" while they were taking the photographs. In other words, they expected the reviewer to judge their portfolio based on their "feelings" instead of critiquing the actual content of the photograph. Regrettably, far too many artists and photographers approach their art in the same manner as this photographer - solely focusing on the emotional aspects of the creative process instead of learning and applying the much needed artistic skills to their work.
The truth is, it's not the reviewer's job to analyze a portfolio based on what the artist feels or felt. It's irrelevant, and it's impossible. What is important is whether or not the artist or photographer adequately communicated the intended message to their audience through the use of design and related compositional techniques that make a work of art successful. Obviously, this person failed to do just that.
If you're an artist or photographer interested in getting a portfolio review you have to ask yourself one crucial question. Are you doing it to seek approval and praise from others or are you looking for an honest evaluation that will help you progress with your art? If you're only interested in approval, save yourself the time and money and just show your portfolio to family and friends. After all, they will tell you what you want to hear. However, if you're an artist or photographer that wants valuable feedback that will help improve your overall body of work save your feelings for the analyst's couch and approach your portfolio review with an open and rational mind.
The series “Happenings” consists of photographs taken between 2009 and 2015 in various cities around the world: Bangkok, Berlin, Krakow, London, Lublin, Sydney, Warsaw, Zadar, and Zagreb.
The main subjects are people within the public space—their everyday rituals and interactions with the surrounding. Taking advantage of the discrete character of street photography, the author captures the stream of daily life, quotidian urban occurrences and sees with fresh eyes those typical situations we are surrounded with on street corners around the world: gaping tourists, expressive street artists, harried people at work, frenzied shoppers and so on.
Of course, these moments happen all the time, but to catch them strikingly is a question of waiting and looking. Waiting and looking. Thus, the title “Happenings” is a reference to how these trivial scenes produce something greater thanks to unexpected compositions and unique combinations of meanings. The “happening” serves as a co-author of these photographs, a cooperation between myself and the beautiful chances that the world has to offer. Continue reading.
- Tomasz Kulbowski
From photographing presidents, Barack Obama & Donald Trump to his intimate documentation of his wife and children, Magnum photographer Christopher Anderson is one of the most accomplished contemporary portrait photographers. In this discussion, Curator of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, Sabina Jaskot-Gill, joins Christopher Anderson to explore what makes a compelling photographic portrait in the latest Magnum Photos Now talk at the Barbican Centre, London. Continue reading.