When Minnesota Street Project, a gallery in San Francisco's Dogpatch neighborhood, showcased Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi ("Savior of the World") in mid-October on behalf of Christie's auction house, no one expected the work would shatter all previous auction art sale records.
"It's an astronomical number," says Deborah Rappaport, art collector and co-founder of Minnesota Street Project. "We thought it was going to go for somewhere around $100 million."
"It's the last known work in private hands by this major, major, major artist," says Bernard Berryte, the curator of the Kirk Edward Long Collection, a privately-held collection of 16th-century prints, and the former curator of European art at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University.
The work has passed between various private owners over the centuries and was most recently in the possession of a Russian billionaire.
Christie's hasn't yet disclosed the identity of the new buyer, though the work is likely to return to a private collector's hands rather than end up on a museum's walls.
The roughly 26-by-18-inch painting of Jesus Christ in a blue robe, with his right hand raised in blessing and a crystal orb in his left hand, sold on Nov. 15 in New York for $450.3 million including fees, far surpassing the previous record holder for a work by an Old Master. (That was Massacre of the Innocents by Peter Paul Rubens, which sold for $76.7 million in 2002.)
Rappaport says an estimated 2000 people stood in line for up to 90 minutes outside Minnesota Street Project from Oct. 18-20 to catch a glimpse of the work. In addition to San Francisco, the piece was displayed in New York, London and Hong Kong prior to the sale.
Dating to around 1500, when the artist was in his late 40s and at the height of his fame, Salvator Mundi attracted these crowds in part because of its rarity. There are currently thought to be only 15 to 20 such works by the Italian Renaissance master in existence.
Museums’ acquisition budgets are typically only a small fraction of the painting's enormous selling price. Their pockets simply aren't as deep as those of Russian billionaires. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (the collective name for the de Young Museum and Legion of Honor) spent less than $3 million on artworks for its collection in 2016 and '17.
“The sale is not a sign that museums are priced out of the acquisition market," says the director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. "We have been priced out already on a much lower level."
That being said, it’s not inconceivable that Salvator Mundi may end up in a museum someday. “A museum’s acquisition fund is only so large," Rappaport says. "But supporters of museums and collectors will often buy things on behalf of a museum and then donate it.” Indeed, the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, home to the Anderson Collection, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, with its Fisher Collection, have greatly benefited from the generosity of art collectors in recent years.
Despite the rarity and nosebleed price point of Salvator Mundi, some experts doubt its authenticity. In an article for the culture website Vulture, New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz dismisses the canvas, labeling it "a two-dimensional ersatz dashboard Jesus."
Saltz points to the fact that the canvas has been touched up a lot in recent years owing to scratches, gouges and missing paint. He also says the painting doesn't resemble any of the few da Vinci paintings in existence today.
"Not a single one of them pictures a person straight on like this one," Saltz writes. "Renaissance masters were all about letting figures interact with the surface and the structure of the painting, curving space, involving the viewer in way more than an old-fashioned direct headshot. Leonardo never let a subject come at you all at once like this much more Byzantine, flat, forward-facing symmetry."