I might be inclined to say that fine art auction sales at Christie’s Auction House are not really my thing. Also not my idea of a live news broadcast either.
Thus, it was a bit of a surprise when CBC News went into the belly of the beast on Wednesday afternoon (evening in New York) last week to witness the auction sale of the Salvator Mundi (Saviour of the World)— advertised as a long-lost painting by the Renaissance master, Leonardo da Vinci.
In fact, it was a tense and fascinating 15 or 20 minute experience, as the approximately 500-year old painting with its own peculiar history – having been ‘missing’ for a hundred years and once sold for 45 pounds in the U.K. – was skillfully and truly dramatically bid on past the $100 million mark, at which art experts had predicted it could be sold.
But it kept going as the original 45 expected bidders dropped out, a few at a time, then more rapidly as bids crept past $200 million, then $300 million.
My wife and I watched, pretty well transfixed, as the tension increased when the auctioneer brought bidder numbers down to five, then three as we watched the $10 million increments of the early part of the auction, creep down to $2 and $3 million at a time.
The bidding agents soon covered their telephones and their mouths with their hands as they talked urgently with the decision makers on the other end. Bids slowed markedly as the auctioneer gave the bidders more and more leeway and time, never taking his gavel by its handle as he pressed for higher and higher multi-millions.
Then there were two. Both bidders were acting on behalf of anonymous clients. Christie’s later reported the winning bid was actually placed by its own co-chairman of post-war and contemporary art, Alex Rotter, who was acting for the unnamed client bidding by telephone.
When it was over, the gavel eventually came down on a final bid of US$400 million, which meant a finished price of about $450 million, with the auction-house premium, which Christie’s also reported as being the highest price ever paid for a single piece of art sold at auction.
The normally staid but packed auction house resounded with cheering and applause.
Of course, if I had been sufficiently knowledgeable about fine arts, I might have known in advance we were perhaps heading for a record-breaking splurge when this painting was offered up for sale by its owner, Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev.
So, when the extended auction was over we just wanted to see the mysterious painting – which soon filled my 55-inch screen. We were not disappointed – it was dramatic to see the auctioneer so patiently urge the remaining bidders into approach the half-a-billion U.S. dollar mark – for this exceptionally expressive painting of a Christ figure holding a crystal orb in one hand, with the other raised in a benediction.
I’ve watched auctions from time to time, for fancy cars, for giant diamonds, for sports memorabilia – but this fine art auction was unusually compelling viewing, out of the blue on a Wednesday afternoon – and a welcome interruption on the dragged-out Vancouver announcements by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about Canada’s long-awaited future plans to return Canadian forces to the role of peacekeeping.
After all, it’s not every day you watch anonymous buyers reach into their billionaire wallets for $450 million to buy a piece of history. Now we’ll wait to find out who the buyer was…