NEW YORK • What is the only Leonardo da Vinci painting on the open market worth?
A Russian billionaire believes he was swindled when he bought it for US$127.5 million (S$174 million). This week, he will find out if he is right.
Salvator Mundi, a painting of Jesus Christ by the Renaissance artist circa 1500, is the star lot in New York's November art auctions that will see Christie's and Sotheby's chase combined art sales of more than US$1 billion.
It goes under the hammer at Christie's tomorrow, something of an incongruous lot in the post-war and contemporary sale which draws the biggest spenders in the world of billionaire art collectors.
The auction house, which declines to comment on the controversy and identifies the seller only as a European collector, has valued the painting at US$100 million.
But the price will be closely watched - not only because the work is one of fewer than 20 paintings by da Vinci known to exist, but also because its owner Dmitry Rybolovlev, boss of football club Monaco, is suing Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier in that city-state.
Mr Rybolovlev, who spent US$2.1 billion on 37 masterpieces purchased through Mr Bouvier over a decade, accuses the latter of overcharging him.
At the heart of the court battle is Salvator Mundi. Mr Bouvier bought it at Sotheby's for US$80 million in 2013. He resold it within days to the tycoon for US$127.5 million, netting a US$47.5 million profit.
For years, the painting was presumed to have been destroyed. Long believed to be a copy before it was certified as authentic, it fetched a mere US$60 (in today's money) in 1958 before disappearing again for decades.
It emerged only in 2005 when it was purchased from a United States estate. All other known paintings by da Vinci are in museum or institutional collections.
Christie's has sought to emphasise da Vinci's inestimable contribution to art history by hanging Salvator Mundi next to Andy Warhol's Sixty Last Suppers - which depicts da Vinci's The Last Supper 60 times over, also on sale with a US$50 million estimate.
Pablo Picasso holds the world record for the most expensive piece of art ever sold at auction.
The Women Of Algiers (Version O) fetched US$179.4 million at Christie's in New York in 2015.
Other highlights being offered by the auction house are Contraste De Formes - a 1913 Fernand Leger work valued at US$65 million - and Laboureur Dans Un Champ by Vincent van Gogh, painted from the window of a French asylum in 1889 and valued at US$50 million.
Sotheby's said it has more than 60 works making their auction debuts this week. Chief among them is Francis Bacon's Three Studies Of George Dyer, valued at US$35 million to US$45 million, and which it noted is appearing in public for the first time in 50 years.
Bacon painted the work in 1966 during his passionate relationship with Dyer.
Two other such triptychs are in museums while an additional two have been offered at auction in recent years.
Sotheby's other star lot is a 1972 Mao by Warhol, exhibited in Berlin, Turin and Paris, and now back in public view for the first time since 1974. It has been given an estimate of US$30 million to US$40 million.
Each of the other 10 Mao paintings (of Chinese statesman Mao Zedong) of the same size are in prestigious public and private collections, including the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.
And, for the first time, the house has added a rare automobile to an art auction, offering Michael Schumacher's Grand Prix-winning Ferrari for upwards of US$4 million on Thursday. But is it a work of art?
"No, it's not," said Mr Gregoire Billault, senior Sotheby's vice-president, of the sleek, low-slung, fireengine red vehicle. "But it's... the very best racing car ever sold at an auction."