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Leonardo Da Vinci and the Art of the Deal

By Alan Brew

Can you put a price on art?

The fact that someone has just paid $450.3 million for a painting, the highest price ever paid for a work of art in auction, suggests you can.

But was this eye-popping price really about art, or something else entirely?

To be sure, there was something remarkably different about the sale itself.  It was bathed in an aura of mystique and excited interest.  More than 27,000 people lined up to see the painting in question, “Salvator Mundi,” in pre-auction viewings in Hong Kong, London, San Francisco and New York.

And what did they see?

In reality, what they saw was a somewhat damaged and questionably restored painting depicting an image of Christ with right hand raised in blessing and his left holding an orb.

One art critic described it as “a proficient but not especially distinguished religious picture from turn-of-the-16th-century Lombardy, put through a wringer of restorations.”

Far from saving the world, he concluded, this Jesus “might struggle to save himself a seat on a crosstown bus.”

So, what happened?

What induced 27,000 people to queue for hours to see an unremarkable painting?

What had the incredible effect of inflating the value of a painting in questionable condition, purchased for less than $10,000 in 2005, to $450.3 million?

What persuaded an individual to part with a large fortune to possess it?

A brand name.

Many scholars, although not all, now accept the painting masked under clumsy restoration as a Leonardo work. His name had a transfiguring effect. Combined with marketing theater the likes of which the art world has never seen before, his name turns base metal into gold. It elevates the mundane into the ethereal.

For the first time Christie’s, the auction house, hired an outside agency to promote the sale. The painting was guarded like a holy relic. It was displayed in a darkened room under spotlights.

It was hyped in banal metaphor as the “male Mona Lisa.” Christie’s executives referred to the work as the “holy grail of our business” and likened it to the “discovery of a new planet.”

This is carefully-scripted marketing “messaging” and it seems to have worked. The astronomical price paid attests to how much salesmanship drives and dominates the conversation about art and its value. What those 27,000 people saw was not a painting, but an illusion.

Leonardo is a brand, and like all brands its value transcends the object or product to which it is attached. The buyer has acquired a “Leonardo,” a trade-able commodity, a hedge against inflation.

It will be kept safely in a vault somewhere, presumably available for private viewings before it is sold again.

After the sale, one gallery director said: “This is going to be the future.”

No doubt. But of what? It has nothing to do with art.