Now the hubbub has subsided after last week’s sale of Leonardo’s ‘Salvator Mundi’ at Christie’s New York for $450 million, we can assess whether the record-shattering price was an indicator of an impending turn in the boom-bust cycle or merely an extreme example of art market operators conspiring to ease the burden of the super-rich. Yes, the era of cheap money and asset-price inflation has gone on too long and there are signals everywhere, from the madness of Bitcoin to the nervousness of IPO markets, that a downturn is due. But my own conclusion is that the Leonardo sale was less of a bellwether and more of a freak show.
The only people I can admire in this story are the art dealers who spent $10,000 at an estate sale in 2005 to buy a damaged painting previously considered fake, had it restored and authenticated, and sold it for $80 million eight years later. That was smart work, but next came dark comedy. The $80 million buyer, high-flying Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier, sold it for $127 million to Monaco-resident ‘fertiliser oligarch’ Dmitry Rybolovlev, whose subsequent suspicion that he had been ripped off has been assuaged by last week’s $300 million windfall. Among rumoured bidders were billionaire former Shanghai taxi driver Liu Yiqian and representatives of the incongruous new Louvre Abu Dhabi. As for Christie’s, we might grudgingly respect the slickness of a PR campaign that turbocharged the painting’s ‘iconic’ status and put it in a contemporary sale that would draw big money, rather than in the Old Masters arena, where sceptics lurk.
Perhaps no one dreamed the bidding would soar so high but this really isn’t a transaction to boast about. Justice might be served by sending the whole pantomime cast into the jungle, clutching their unlovely artwork, as contestants in I’m a Celebrity…