What happened the night of November 15th in the saleroom of Christie’s NY will be undoubtedly remembered for long, and not just by the international art market.
Who will save this art market?
Before the Salvator Mundi never had a work of art, of any medium/type, managed to achieve such a result. And still now, a week after that night, the amount raised seems difficult to even just pronounce: $400m ($450,3m, if you also consider the buyer’s premium).
Inevitably, such a landmark event caused an authentic storm immediately after the hammer came down, with media from all areas of the globe reporting the news and generating an unprecedented public exposure for an art piece (dear old Andy couldn’t have helped but approving this!).
But, apart from the obvious headlines, how should we art professionals read such an unprecedented outcome? And, more importantly, how should the ones outside the market do so?
For Vittorio Sgarbi, who is notorious for taking positions which tend to contradict the common opinion, the Salvator Mundi was even cheap. ‘It is a priceless, unique piece’ - he said the day after Christie’s sale – rightly pointing to the attitude of explaining the significance of an artwork by looking at its price tag (the heftier the better).
This exclusively money-oriented approach to art is misleading and as a direct consequence inevitably subverts the order of the reasons necessary to determine its intrinsic value (with ‘value’ here intended not in monetary terms, however the full range of aesthetic, stylistic, cultural as well as historical features attached).
This seems to be the real point: ‘This Leonardo has become undoubtedly by Leonardo and universally acclaimed as such only after the auction result’, continues Sgarbi (who himself had cast doubt on the actual attribution before). In other words, it was its cost which determined its value, not only financially but also – and perhaps more significantly – art-historically speaking.
Pietro Marani, one of the very few real experts when it comes to Leonardo and his oeuvre and one of the four scholars who were asked for an initial unofficial authentication on the panel by the National Gallery of London back in 2011, draws the attention to the PR/marketing machine built by Christie’s ahead of the sale. The sharp strategy of the auction house was based on the idea of presenting the portrait as the ‘male version’ of the Monna Lisa and even labelling it as a Da Vinci – far more popular and specific than Leonardo – may have helped boost its selling potential.
And this is an additional key passage, on which it is worth pausing. And one which brings us back to the notion of value: in today’s art market, what is it that effectively determines it and/or that can affect it considerably? Is it still the characteristics of a piece, its rarity, what experts say or rather external factors, such as a well-thought, savvy and persuasive advertising campaign?
No matter which perspective you decide to adopt, what happened at Christie’s NY a couple of weeks ago should work as a warning alarm in reference to the direction taken by the global art market – as a whole, not simply the auction business.
Will it all be a continuous, insane rush towards the sensational piece (or wisely made so – even for the Salvator Mundi there is no unanimity) and the new smashed record? Are we really sure that such a dramatic polarisation towards the inaccessible world of the ultrarich is a positive strategy (ironically, in a moment when an Old Master has reached what seemed the unachievable, we are here thinking about the pure and simple speculation which lays behind the ‘creation’ of some Contemporary Art pieces, conceived uniquely for the market and regularly sold for obscene amounts) but especially a sustainable one?