Higher Love



When we took over the publication of this magazine in 1998, one of the decisions I needed to make was what to do with this space. I decided that I would write this column myself, much as I do for a couple of the other magazines that we publish. I’m not an artist, but I have worked in and around specialty retail for the past 40 years, so there were plenty of topics I could discuss that have some relevance to this industry.

There were also topics that had no direct bearing on the business but were interesting to me, and that I thought would be of some interest to our readers. One of those was the high-end auction of paintings by Sotheby’s, Christie’s, et al., and what it said about art, culture, and commerce.

Partly, of course, it was just the mind-boggling numbers. How could something that Picasso created in one day be worth a hundred million dollars? How could anything be worth that much?

There was also the provenance of masterworks, which is often an integral part of their value. I love a good story, and great paintings seem to come with fascinating stories about the famous, infamous, or mysterious figures who had owned them, and how the artwork had come to change hands over the years.

The more interesting facet to me, though, was the issue that is now called “branding,” which means that the market value of a painting has little to do with intrinsic merit and everything to do with name recognition. If someone in Arizona finds a paint-spattered canvas in his neighbor’s garage that resembles a Jackson Pollock, as happened last summer, it sets off an intense debate among forensic experts, art historians, critics and amateur sleuths about the authorship of the work.

In the case of that painting, detectives discovered that the owner of the garage had long ago cleaned out the estate of his half-sister, a woman who had actually been friends with Pollock. It is now considered genuine, but the jury is still out on a much larger Pollock-like painting that turned up in a California garage sale a few years ago.

That piece could be worth $50 million, or the $5 that somebody paid for it. The fact that it’s the same painting whether Pollock painted it or not apparently matters to exactly no one.

At any rate, I stopped writing about the sale of masterworks because I ran out of things to say, and I think we all became numb to the prices. Once a number is unimaginable, it doesn’t really matter if you double it.

So I hadn’t paid much attention to art auctions for the past decade or so, until a headline in The New York Times caught my attention this past November 15th. “Leonardo da Vinci Painting Sells for $450.3 Million, Shattering Auctions Highs.” Wait, what?

  When I left off reading and writing about these things, the highest valuations were well into nine figures, but half a billion represents a whole new level of crazy. The previous record was $179 million, which was set by Christie’s in May 2015, for Picasso’s “Women of Algiers.”

At first glance the number just didn’t make sense to me, especially

considering that the big money in recent times has gone more toward French Impressionists and Abstract Expressionists than Renaissance masters. As I learned the details about “Salvator Mundi,” it was even more puzzling.

First of all, we’re not at all certain that Leonardo painted it. As recently as 2005, it was sold at an estate sale for less than $10,000, because it was considered to be merely a copy of a lost Leonardo. Although a number of experts have since become convinced that it is a genuine work of the master, there are also some who believe it is not.

Second, it’s in bad shape. It was painted on wood, which over the centuries has cracked and roughened. Efforts to clean and restore it have included some crude overpainting, and parts of the composition may differ from Leonardo’s creation, assuming he painted it in the first place.

Finally, it’s just not that good. Although Christie’s shamelessly marketed it as “the male Mona Lisa,” it lacks most of the qualities that have made that icon so popular. In spite of some appealing details, critics have generally found the painting to be rather dull, lifeless and uninspiring.

So how does all that add up to half a billion? Well, if authentic, it is the only known work of da Vinci to be privately owned in the entire world, which made me wonder who would value that distinction so highly. The answer made the whole business seem stranger by half.

A few days after the auction, press reports identified the buyer as a member of the Saudi royal family, Prince Bader. Because Bader himself is not rich enough to make such a purchase, it was widely assumed that he was acting on behalf of his close friend, Crown Prince Mohammed.

That would be a little awkward, because the crown prince is in the middle of what is supposed to be a crackdown on self-enrichment by the royal family. It later came out that Bader was actually an intermediary for the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism, which will exhibit the painting at the new Louvre Abu Dhabi.

So “Salvator Mundi” will not be in private hands after all, but there is a great irony in its disposition. The painting is a portrait of Jesus, which will now be displayed at the cultural heart of the Arab world. Traditional Muslims believe that artworks should not depict human beings, and that it is blasphemous to depict a prophet. Islam considers Jesus to have been a prophet.

I don’t know how the Louvre Abu Dhabi will address those issues, but I’m guessing that it won’t have much effect on most of us in this industry. Nonetheless, I do think that the sale of “Salvator Mundi” matters.

I know it sounds silly, but the enormous valuation of paintings, from both old and modern masters, serves not only to validate the importance of fine art, but to encourage more people to learn to paint. The odds against any one of those people getting rich from selling his or her work are astronomical, but so are the odds of winning the lottery. The bigger the jackpot, though, the more people play.

A better analogy might be sports. Millions of kids play basketball, for instance, mostly because it’s a great game. They don’t play because NBA stars are rich and famous, but neither are they living in a vacuum. When Steph Curry signs a $200 million
contract, do you suppose that participation in the sport goes up?

It does indeed.

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