Art Market
$450 Million Leonardo da Vinci Becomes Most Expensive Artwork of All Time amid Otherwise Solid Results at Christie’s
Courtesy of Christie’s.

Courtesy of Christie’s.

The crowds came to Christie’s expecting a show, and in the end they got history.

The house’s post-war and contemporary auction Wednesday totaled $692 million ($785.9 million with fees) on 58 lots in a sale that spanned roughly two hours. But for many in the initially jam-packed Rockefeller Plaza salesroom, the auction lasted the 19 minutes it took to sell a single work for $400 million ($450 million with fees), making it the most expensive piece ever purchased at auction, and likely the most expensive artwork ever sold.

The saleroom simmered with anticipation as auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen announced lot nine: Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (circa 1500). Cell phones came out en-masse to capture the event, while a cavalcade of press and primped art world citizens scanned the room for the special red paddles Christie’s handed out to those wishing to bid on the prize. A sale was assured courtesy of a $100 million guarantee, but every other outcome—from a world record to thin bidding for a work of questioned authenticity—felt possible.

Pylkkänen opened bidding on the Leonardo at $70 million, and anxious early seconds of tepid reception gave way to a steady pace as $95 million became $110 million became $120 million in short order. The room proved an active audience as the price teetered upward; it produced just one of many audible gasps as bidding hit $200 million, clearing the previous $179.4 million record for any work sold at auction set by Pablo Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger (Version “O”) in 2015.

Five bidders tried to take home Salvator Mundi, but from the $220 million mark onwards the contest was two-person boxing match via a pair of Christie’s representatives in the phone bank to Pylkkänen’s right. Post-War and Contemporary co-chair Alex Rotter and Old Master head François de Poortere bid it out on behalf of their clients. After a $286 million bid from de Poortere, Rotter warbled out a $300 million counter, tying the price that billionaire hedge fund manager Ken Griffin reportedly paid for Willem de Kooning’s Interchange (1955) in 2015, the most expensive art transaction ever publicly reported until Christie’s Wednesday sale.  

“Let’s see if that’s done it,” the auctioneer chimed.

De Poortere’s client was not finished, continuing up and up in mostly two- and three-million-dollar increments, until the price hit $370 million. The sum would have been more than enough to take home every other lot offered at Christie’s on Wednesday night. For the very next bid, Rotter called out $400 million, and that was the end. The room clapped, gasped, and laughed, the way one does when seeing something simultaneously historic, unbelievable, and more than a little crazy.  

Christie’s staff was ebullient with the result, which they had worked hard and across departments to achieve. “I feel really great,” a pleased Rotter said after the sale, adding with modesty, “I just take the bids.”

Christie’s systematically developed an aura around Salvator Mundi via a successful marketing blitz leading up to the auction that saw the piece go on a world tour from San Francisco to Hong Kong and included an ad by top agency Droga5 that didn’t show the painting at all. At the auction house’s headquarters in New York, the work was displayed alone in a sleek black-walled room that created a sense of spectacle and reverence, like a selfie-friendly funeral. The crowds turned out, with some people waiting over an hour to glimpse the work.

Make no mistake, Wednesday night witnessed the purchase of a well-cultivated moment in history as much as a canvas—though by whom remains unknown (Christie’s CEO Guillaume Cerutti was mum on the buyer at the press conference).

“The sale has set a high water mark surely in terms of value, but even more [in terms] of sublime marketing strategy,” Nigel Glenday, vice president of strategy at Athena Art Finance, told Artsy after the auction.

That the evening has been reported as the second-highest total for a post-war and contemporary evening sale at Christie’s is, however, slightly misleading. The spectacular result for the Leonardo is likely best viewed as an entirely separate auction compared to the solid but not jaw-dropping results obtained by the evening’s actual post-war and contemporary art. (While technically an Old Master work, the Leonardo falls not so much into any one category but rather into what Rotter dubbed the “masterpiece market.”) Across Wednesday night’s sale, the sell-through rate was a solid 84 percent by lot. The total haul sans-Leonardo was $292 million, before fees.

“It was fine, it was business as usual,” said Guy Jennings, managing director of London-based advisory firm The Fine Art Group, of the rest of the auction. “It was a tale of two sales.”

He also noted that most bidding was driven by American and European collectors, with Asian buyers notably silent—a marked contrast to Monday’s Impressionist and Modern sale at Christie’s, where bidders from Asia were a force to be reckoned with all night long.

The house’s publicity effort for the Leonardo included selling it alongside another star lot that actually fit the post-war and contemporary category of Wednesday evening: Andy Warhol’s massive Sixty Last Suppers (1986). The piece shows 60 black-and-white renderings of da Vinci’s famous depiction of Jesus Christ’s last meal. The work was estimated at $53 million. It hammered after a relatively brief barrage of bids at $56 million, or $60.8 million with fees (and $1 million per Last Supper)—a solid result but one that felt decidedly anticlimactic after the drama of Salvator Mundi.

Two pieces painted decades apart by Cy Twombly also hit the block Wednesday night. The boldly colorful cover lot Untitled (2005) became the third most expensive piece of the night, fetching a near-squarely on-estimate $41 million, or $46.4 million with fees. The artist’s Sunset (1957), which features the artist’s classic frenzied scribbles, sold for $24 million, or $27.3 million with fees, also relatively close to its estimate of $22 million.

A work by Abstract Expressionist Franz Kline showing the thick dark painted slashes that define the artist and was backed by a minimum price guarantee. The imposing Light Mechanic (1960) ultimately fetched $18 million, or $20 million with fees (it was estimated as being in the region of $20 million).

A pair of far more soothing works by Mark Rothko fared modestly well. Saffron (1957) was estimated to fetch between $25 million and $35 million and gaveled down at $28.5 million, or $32.3 million with fees. Though not quite as pricey, the artist’s Untitled (1969) sold for $9.5 million, $11 million with fees. It was expected to fetch between $10 million and $15 million.

A spider sculpture by Louise Bourgeois crawled its way to its low estimate, selling for $10 million ($11.5 million with fees) to become the seventh most expensive lot of the evening.

The sale was punctuated by a few prominent lots failing to sell—including the work that came up right after Salvator Mundi. Since May, when Jean-Michel Basquiat was christened America’s most expensive artist at Sotheby’s, an influx of works by the artist have hit the secondary market. Wednesday night’s auction of Basquiat’s Il Duce (a reference to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini) marked a fresh test of the artist’s market in a major New York evening sale.

Painted in 1982, the same year as Basquiat’s record-breaking Untitled, the work’s $25 million to $35 million estimate was nowhere near the $110.5 million paid in the spring by Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa. But bidding for Il Duce Wednesday topped out at $24 million and the work was bought in.

“It didn’t find any bidders but I stay confident in the Basquiat market,” Rotter said. “I’m sure it’ll find a home soon.”

There was tepid reception for Peter Doig’s landscape Almost Grown (2000). It sold for $9 million (or $10.4 million with fees), below its $10 million to $15 million pre-sale estimate. Another work by the artist, Red House (1995–96), will be offered at Phillips’s evening sale on Thursday and holds an estimate of $18 million to $22 million.

Some of the less expensive works on offer at Christie’s fared remarkably well. Backed by a guarantee, Lee Krasner’s Shattered Light (1954) obliterated its high estimate of $2.5 million, selling for $4.6 million, or $5.4 million with fees, and breaking the artist’s auction record.

A serene and masterful Vija Celmins pencil-on-paper work titled Lead Sea #2 (1969) went for $3.5 million, $4.2 million with fees, on an estimate of $1.5 million and $2.5 million, also setting a world record for the artist.

Kerry James Marshall’s Still Life with Wedding Portrait (2015) drew frenzied bidding. The brilliant work set a record for Marshall, hammering down at $4.2 million ($5 million with fees), some three times its high estimate of $1.5 million. Other auction records were set for artists Philippe Parreno, Adam Pendleton, William Baziotes, Hans Hofmann, Julian Schnabel, and Isamu Noguchi.

Noguchi’s work Olmec & Muse (1985) closed the auction with a jubilant result. Seemingly determined not to leave the saleroom empty-handed, a few bidders pushed the work well clear of its $800,000 high estimate to sell at a relatively whopping $4.1 million, or $4.9 with fees. The room, by then 80 percent empty, let out a burst of applause.

Isaac Kaplan is an Associate Editor at Artsy.