Behold! The world’s most expensive painting

Going, going, gone: At $450 million, the painting returned 1.35% annually over five centuries.

Is money ruining art? A painting of Jesus Christ by Leonardo da Vinci has sold for a world record price after being rediscovered in 2005. The buyer is an unidentified private collector.

No spare seats. Tension and anticipation, culminating in wild cheering and applause. A world record broken.

But this was not a football ground. This was Christie’s auction room, New York, on Wednesday, where a Leonardo da Vinci painting sold for $450 million - smashing all records. It is one of fewer than 20 oil paintings by the Italian master in existence.

It is still not yet known who purchased Salvator Mundi (Saviour of the World), but speculation is already rife. Is it going to the far east? Is it going to the new Abu Dhabi Louvre?

“This is the last Leonardo painting you can buy. This isn't as a store of value, it's the ultimate trophy — only one person in the world can own this,” says Georgina Adam, an art market specialist.

What makes this purchase all the more remarkable is that doubt remains over its authenticity. It was apparently part of Charles I’s collection in the 17th century. In 1958 it was believed that the painter was just a friend of Leonardo, and it sold for a mere £45.

But in 2005 it became "the most important discovery in the 21st Century", and has subsequently been heavily cleaned and restored. Jesus Christ has had cosmetic surgery.

Salvator Mundi is the only Leonardo oil painting in private hands. It is likely to stand in a billionaire’s mansion, rather than on display at a gallery for the public to see. But this is not the only objection to the mass purchase of art by private collectors.

The modern age of mega-collectors has been widely criticised for simultaneously devaluing the meaning of art and making it elitist. In 2007 British artist Damien Hirst said: “You just make things and you sell them, you make things and sell them.”

In other words, art is churned out for the super-rich for whom, as Jerry Saltz writes in New York Magazine, “Taste has become a cheap high.”

But art and megabucks have always gone together. During the Renaissance, the power and wealth of the Borgias and the Medicis helped fund Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Titian.

Is money good for art?

A collector’s item

Some argue that the vast sums people are willing to pay for art shows that art appreciation has never been higher. The current boom has given artists “far more opportunities, a far higher profile, and a far more positive status in society than ever”, says Georgina Adam. The money may seem obscene, but it is necessary.

Others believe that it distorts the way we view art. We do not judge a film on how much is spent on it, but how the public at large views it. Art critics have become more interested in the self-indulgence of the ultra-rich than the significance of the art itself. Art must not slavishly reflect the taste of the few people who can buy it.

You Decide

  1. Does money stifle creativity — or encourage it?
  2. Which piece of art should be the most valuable in the world?

Activities

  1. Sketch the design for a painting of Jesus Christ.
  2. Give a five minute presentation on a piece of Renaissance art to your class.

Some People Say...

“Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”

Andy Warhol

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
An oil painting of Jesus Christ attributed to Leonardo da Vinci has been sold for a world record $450 million at auction in New York. It is believed to have been painted some time after 1505. The unidentified buyer was involved in a bidding contest, via telephone, which lasted nearly 20 minutes. The painting was “rediscovered” in 2005. For many years, people had thought it was a work by one of Leonardo’s contemporaries.
What do we not know?
As well as not knowing who bought it and whether it will go on public display, we still cannot be completely sure that it is authentic. Writing on Vulture.com, Jerry Saltz says: "Any private collector who gets suckered into buying this picture and places it in their apartment or storage, it serves them right.”

Word Watch

Leonardo da Vinci
Born in 1452 in Florence, Leonardo da Vinci was a scientist, mathematician, engineer, artist, inventor, anatomist, sculptor, architect, botanist, musician, and a writer. He is considered one of the most talented people ever to have lived.
$450 million
Bidding began at $100 million; the final bid was $400 million; with fees the full price was $450.3 million.
Smashing all records
It overtakes Interchange by Willem de Kooning, a 1955 painting sold to hedge-fund founder Kenneth C. Griffin, and Paul Cézanne’s When Will You Marry?, which went to a mystery buyer, rumoured to be a Qatari museum. Both were sold for $300 million.
Borgias
A wealthy Italian-Spanish noble family suspected of many crimes, including adultery, incest, corruption, and murder. The Borgia family produced two popes.
Medicis
A Florentine family, becoming the richest in Europe. Their wealth and influence initially derived from the textile trade, but they are most famous for opening the Medici bank, the world’s first modern bank.