Integral to Christie’s pitch for the Leonardo Salvator Mundi‘s appeal is that the painting will anchor a future institution the way the Mona Lisa is the main attraction at Paris’s Louvre museum. In the days before the sale, a chorus of frustrated voices grew louder expressing their doubts about the painting’s restoration and even questioning the scholarly consensus that emerged before the 2011 Leonardo show at the UK’s National Gallery. Central to some of those objections are whether the painting is of sufficient quality to justify the price paid (It’s worth pausing here to remind everyone that the art market doesn’t measure quality, it measures demand and distribution) or whether the damage the painting has suffered over so many years has compromised the work.
In either case, we might want to look back at the Mona Lisa and its rise to fame for clues about the record setting $450m purchase. In other words, is the painting worth it?
One of the oft-overlooked facts about the Mona Lisa is that its international fame is not a product of its position in Leonardo’s body of works or some global scholarly evaluation of Renaissance art or, even, world art. Leonardo’s Mona Lisa though surely an important work by one of the world’s leading artists is also an object that is famous for being famous. It’s global renown is a product of the turn of the 20th Century theft and the international newspaper sensationalism that followed the painting’s theft from the Louvre. As many know, Pablo Picasso was questioned in the theft and came under suspicion for a time during the two years the picture had gone missing. That the thief was said to be motivated by feelings of national pride—the Italian work belonged in an Italian museum—only added to the hype as the world drifted toward the Great War in 1914.
Christie’s exceptional marketing of the painting, including long lines of visitors at the various stops, combined with the extraordinary bidding and the subsequent media frenzy may simply supersede the other issues entirely. There’s no telling how the world will view the painting in one or two decades time. At the moment, the work is getting the best possible “launch” as the marketing seems to be vindicated by the price. For the public, Salvator Mundi is being validated by the buyer’s willingness to pay so much money for it.
That position in the popular imagination won’t be easily displaced.