The stunning sale of a Leonardo da Vinci painting Wednesday night for $450.3 million might be good news for the mystery buyer who will now get to put “Salvator Mundi” on his or her wall. But some art experts say they have questions about it.
Jodi Cranston, an art history professor at Boston University, said the mammoth sale price for the picture, whose authenticity some have questioned, was “surprising.”
“It’s a little concerning, I guess I’d say,” she said. “I don’t know if this is a start of a trend or not. That’s a price that most museums could not pay. We’re starting to see the movement of artworks back into closeted collections, where the general public will never see these artworks.”
“It makes me kind of furrow my brow a little bit,” she said. “Public institutions are struggling financially, so how can they compete?”
She also said that there are mixed opinions in the art history community on the painting’s authenticity.
Simon Schama, the prominent English art historian, is among the skeptics, tweeting Wednesday, “Whatever % of Salvator Mundi is Leonardo it’s just not that much of a painting.”
Dare one say this? Whatever % of Salvator Mundi is Leonardo it's just not that much of a painting.— Simon Schama (@simon_schama) November 15, 2017
Frank Fehrenbach, an art history professor at the University of Hamburg, said da Vinci, like other major Renaissance painters, had other painters collaborating in his studio.
“We know from contemporary sources that Leonardo — especially after 1500 — invented ideas for compositions in drawings which others developed into paintings in a number of different versions,” Fehrenbach said in an e-mail. “Sometimes, these sources say, he came by and added a few brushstrokes. This is most probably what happened with the “Salvator Mundi” painting - at best!”
“In its present state, the protagonist looks like a grumpy relative of Mona Lisa on botox,” he quipped.
Cranston said she, too, though she hasn’t seen the picture in person, questioned whether it was a real da Vinci.
“It’s probably either kind of a studio product or by a student . . . or just a Leonardo in really bad shape,” she said.
Nancy Netzer, professor of art history and director of Boston College’s McMullen Museum, said the price paid for the painting was “certainly staggering,” and she wondered about its authenticity, too.
“I don’t know whether this painting is authentic or not, but it does pose vexing problems. ... The one thing that I’d be concerned about is that because it has commanded such a high price, I wouldn’t want that to — but suspect it could — cut off future research into both the authenticity and condition of the work.”
The price paid for the painting was a record for any work of art sold at auction. Christie’s, which auctioned the painting, billed it as “the Last da Vinci,” calling it the only known painting by the Renaissance master in a private collection. About 15 others are in museums.
The marketing of the painting also has raised some concerns, with Christie’s enlisting an outside agency for the first time to tout it and putting it on sale in its contemporary auction, rather than its Old Masters auction, apparently to fetch a higher price.
Artnet News reported that this fall’s New York auctions being held in a frenzy this week could top the $1 billion mark in sales, higher than last year’s fall season, though spring season sales totaled $1.6 billion.
At the time Artnet News posted its article, the da Vinci was priced at $100 million, though the site predicted presciently that “there are sure to be fireworks.”
Mukti Khaire, a Cornell University professor who is an expert in the art business, said the da Vinci sale showed “the extent to which art is a ‘business’ . . . and that systematically studying markets for art and other cultural goods . . . through a business and entrepreneurship lens can yield new insights.”
Don Thompson, a professor at the Schulich School of Business at York University in Canada who specializes in art economics, said the art market crashed with the rest of the economy during the Great Recession, but since 2013, it has fully recovered. It’s “healthy, and it’s cruising along,” he said.
High prices are being paid, particularly for contemporary art, because “there’s a lot of money in the world, and there are more new billionaires every year than there is quality new art,” he said.
He said the da Vinci sale was unique, part of the “super-premium, museum-quality, wow” segment of the art market.
Museums, which can build their reputations with such works, often compete for them.
“What [the sale] does do is raise the plausible limit for a star work,” said Thompson, whose latest book is “The Orange Balloon Dog: Bubbles, Turmoil and Avarice in the Contemporary Art Market.”
He said he expected the buyer’s name to be released at some point.
“Nobody pays that price to lock it away as an investment. You buy it as a feature piece for a wall in a museum or in a very large, opulent home,” he said.