This discussion of the sale of Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi and Andy Warhol’s 60 Last Suppers is available to AMMpro subscribers. The first month is free with every subscription. Feel free to subscribe and cancel before the first month is up.
The two works are coming from different types of collections and being sold to accomplish different goals but Christie’s decision to pair Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi with Andy Warhol’s giant 60 Last Suppers offers an interesting window into the market. Separately, each work is a test of one sector of the art market. Together, they might actually attract a whole different sort of buyer.
Both works will be sold during Christie’s November 15th Evening sale of Post-War and Contemporary art further echoing Christie’s multi-year push to re-orient collectors away from categories but toward acquiring trophies. That broader theme may help achieve success here for two works that might have been much harder to bring to market on their own.
Let’s take a step back to think about this. The background music to much of today’s collecting at the top of the market has been the growth of large scale private collections that exist as or are planned to become private museums. These collections are located in all parts of the world feed by a benefactor’s desire to create an institution with lasting presence. In many cases that institution is meant to become an anchor to a city or region’s ambitions to greater cultural relevance or as the foundation to economic growth.
During the press conference announcing the $100m consignment of the Leonardo backed by a third-party guarantee and the $50m Warhol with the same downside protection, Christie’s Loic Gouzer offered this construction: the Mona Lisa is the foundation of the Louvre’s fame and tourist appeal; the Louvre is Paris’s main attraction; the buyer of Salvator Mundi has the opportunity to plant the cornerstone of another great collection.
Yes, that’s classic auction house marketing. But it contains a strong element of truth. Buenos Aires is paying Art Basel’s consulting arm, Art Basel Cities, a great deal of money to be told how to create a thriving arts economy centered around the visual arts. Christie’s has create a package that should tempt, even if it does not ultimately convince, a regional billionaire that buying an institutional size Warhol with the only known Leonardo could be the foundation of a collection that will put their city on the map.
Before we go too far with this line of thinking, let’s acknowledge that Christie’s did not set out to create a museum in a box. Rather, the auction house team groped their way through existing market dynamics to get there.
One of the surprise highlights of last Spring’s sale of the Spiegel collection at Christie’s was the couple’s pink double Last Supper by Andy Warhol. The work impressed most viewers with its vibrant color, crisp register and fresh condition. The estimate at between $6m and $8m seemed designed to attract bidders both among the right sort of buyers and those invested in and defending Warhol’s dormant market. Laurence Graff ultimately won the work for more than twice the high estimate to pay $18.7m.
Auction house specialists follow their bidders closely. So it would be no surprise to learn that Alex Rotter, on behalf of the team at Christie’s, went to the underbidders to gauge the market demand for Last Supper works. Confident a big Last Supper could re-open the top of the Warhol market, Rotter knew where to go to get access to 60 Last Suppers. He secured a guarantor and thus the consignment with a $50m estimate.
Enthusiastic end buyers (not active market participants on both sides of the trading) have been scarce since Christie’s November 2014 sales of two Warhols from a German casino—a Triple Elvis [Ferus Type] for nearly $82m and Four Marlons for almost $70m. The bidding around the double Last Suppers were a good market indicator but Christie’s was now talking about selling a work for at least three times the final figure on the pink Warhol. Even with 30 times the number of images, the price jump is going to dramatically winnow the number of potential bidders.
Armed with the Warhol, Loic Gouzer put on his looking forward to the past goggles and immediately saw the Salvator Mundi, a wounded work languishing in a collection overwhelmed by bitter feelings and recriminations. The exceedingly public fight between Dmitry Rybolovlev and his former art advisor Yves Bouvier had already cast a pall over the Leonardo. It scarcely seems possible that the only known Leonardo in private hands that was featured at the center of a once-in-a-generation museum show of Leonardo’s work at London’s National Gallery could become more notorious for how it was acquired and what price was paid. But for the last two years, that has been the case.
Rybolovlev is an unhappy owner looking for a way to rid himself of an unpleasant past decision without suffering too much financial damage. So it should not surprise us that Rybolovlev responded to Gouzer’s idea, especially when it came with $100m bid already attached. Rybolovlev feels that he was duped into over-paying for the Leonardo in 2013 when Bouvier bought it for $80m from Sotheby’s and sold it to the Russian for an immediate and dramatic mark up for $47.5m. The $100m bid already, just four years later, represents a 25% increase over the price Bouvier paid but a greater than 20% loss for Rybolovlev should their be no other bidders.
If Christie’s is able to attract bidders for the Leonardo alone or the book-ended package of the 16th Century work and the 20th Century commentary, the price with premium will be a lot closer to what Rybolovlev actually paid.
Finally, going beyond price, it is clear from Christie’s press conference and the imminent publication of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo that this moment has the potential to wash away from Salvator Mundi the distractions of its sales history and place the emphasis back on its authenticity and art historical significance.