Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (Saviour of the World) was bought for $450 million (£342 million) in New York on Wednesday evening, shattering the record for the most expensive artwork ever sold.
The painting, which was once part of Charles I’s Royal collection and was sold for just £45 in the 1950s when it was mistaken for a copy, is the last remaining Leonardo in private hands.
It sold for a total amount, including fees paid by the winner to the auction house, of $450,312,500 million following 19 minutes of bidding at Christie’s in New York – despite lingering questions by some experts over its authenticity and condition.
Four telephone bidders and one in the auction room dueled for the masterpiece, which had a guaranteed pre-sale bid of at least $100 million.
Bidding slowed at around the $200 million mark, and then one of the telephone bidders helped to push it towards $300 million as the price jumped $2 million at a time.
“280 million. Are we all done? Maybe not…” Jussi Pylkkanen, the auctioneer said. Amid gasps around the room, he paused and said: “It’s a historic moment: we’ll wait.”The hammer eventually fell at $400 million, leading to applause and cheers by the stunned crowd. The victor – one of the phone bidders – was not immediately identified on Wednesday night.
“Salvator Mundi is a painting of the most iconic figure in the world by the most important artist of all time,” said Loic Gouzer, co-chairman of post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s. ”
“We are extremely pleased with the record-breaking result for this remarkable and historical work.”
The previous record for a painting sold at auction was Pablo Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger (Women of Algiers), which went for $179.4 million in 2015, while Paul Gauguin’s Nafea Faa Ipoipo? (When Will You Marry?) commanded $300 million in a private sale the same year.
The painting depicts Christ in a blue robe holding a crystal orb, which represents the Earth, and is one of fewer than 20 paintings by the grand master known still to exist.
There was huge hype surrounding the sale of the 26-inch tall painting, billed by Christie’s as “The Last da Vinci”.
The auction house took the painting on a world tour, with an estimated 27,000 people viewing it at events in London, Hong Kong and San Francisco – a figure that Christie’s claims makes it the highest number of viewers for an individual work of art ever.
In New York, where no museum owns a Leonardo, the painting was hung at the end of a dimly lit, long room, giving it the appearance of a shrine.
A promotional video for the sale featured Leonardo DiCaprio and Patti Smith staring at the painting, apparently agog at its beauty.
Todd Levin, an art adviser, told the New York Times: “This was a thumping epic triumph of branding and desire over connoisseurship and reality.”
Alan Hobart, director of the Pyms Gallery in London, said the manner of the sale was “going to be the future”. “It’s been a brilliant marketing campaign,” he said.
Some experts have previously questioned the painting’s attribution and some say the extensive restoration muddies the work’s authorship. However, Christie’s states that a majority of scholars now believe beyond doubt that it is genuine.
In 2011, following a six-year investigation, the painting, which has been nicknamed “the male Mona Lisa”, was confirmed to be a Leonardo and put on display at the National Gallery.
It was the first confirmed “discovery” of a painting by Leonardo since 1909 and was widely described as one of the great artistic finds of the past 100 years.
Leonardo, who died in 1519, is thought to have painted Salvator Mundi sometime after 1500, during the same period that he produced the Mona Lisa, and it made its way into the Royal collection of Charles I in the early Seventeenth Century.
It then disappeared in 1763 until 1900, when it was acquired by Sir Charles Robinson, an art collector, for the Cook Collection, Doughty House, Richmond. At the time, the painting was thought to have been by Leonardo’s follower, Bernardino Luini and Christ’s face and hair had been painted over.
In 1958 the painting was sold by Sotheby’s for just £45 and dropped off the grid once again until it showed up in Louisiana in 2005.
It was acquired, badly damaged and partly painted-over, by a consortium of American art dealers who paid less than £7,600 ($10,000) for it.
They restored it extensively and documented its authenticity as a work by Leonardo. Dmitry Rybolovlev, a Russian billionaire, bought it in 2013 for $127.5 million (£97 million) in a private sale that became the subject of a continuing lawsuit.
Thousands of art lovers queued for hours outside Christie’s Rockefeller Center headquarters to view the painting in New York earlier this week.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Svetla Nikolova told the Associated Press. “It should be seen. It’s wonderful it’s in New York. I’m so lucky to be in New York at this time.”
Nina Doede told the New York Times: “Standing in front of that painting was a spiritual experience. It was breathtaking. It brought tears to my eyes.”