Leonardo da Vinci painting sold for $611 million

Why paying so much for a painting is not crazy

Each time a painting sells for countless millions, it is hugely tempting to discuss billionaires' whims and starving artists. But the US$450.3 million (S$611 million) paid by an anonymous buyer for Salvator Mundi, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, is  a different story.

It is a testament to the true value of great art. Salvator Mundi, the portrait of Christ that da Vinci supposedly painted around 1500, likely for King Louis XII of France, does have something of a history as a billionaire's investment.

The seller, Mr Dmitry Rybolovlev, made his US$10-billion fortune in potash, sold his Russian companies and invested a large part of the proceeds in an art collection.

Why could the painting be worth so much more to the new owner than to Mr Rybolovlev, when he acquired it in 2013?

Salvator Mundi has the potential to be another Mona Lisa, sparking speculation that a museum may have acquired it. The Mona Lisa has made the reputation of the Louvre as a superstar museum, the third most visited in the world.

It became the prime jewel of the Paris museum collection, ahead of previously higher-valued works by Raphael Sanzio and Tiziano Vecelli, when it was stolen in 1911 and the French newspapers whipped up a frenzy about its loss so that people waited in line to see the empty spot on the wall where it had hung.

The Mona Lisa has been a reliable generator of stories since - about it being da Vinci's self-portrait, the symbolism behind it, for example. When it was taken to New York in 1963, one million people came to see it.

Would 7.5 million people a year pay an average of €9 (S$14.40) to visit the Louvre if the painting were not there? If just one million of them passed on it, the museum would lose the entire amount paid for Salvator Mundi over 50 years.

Salvator Mundi has some of the same magical qualities. It is compelling as a painting, with Christ's sharply painted blessing hand drawing attention in the first few seconds and his misty, hypnotic gaze inevitably taking over. 

And the world has not really heard its story yet - the French royal commission, the painstaking authentication, the Russian oligarch and his fling with high art. Add to this the element of novelty and the attraction of enormous sums of money and you have the anchor for an ambitious museum aiming at superstardom.

The previous record-holder as the most expensive painting in the world - Pablo Picasso's Women Of Algiers (Version O) - sold for US$179 million in 2015, would not have worked for the purpose. It did not have the air of exquisite rarity and better work by prolific Picasso could be seen elsewhere.

Mr Roland Augustine, co-owner of gallery Luhring Augustine, who attended the auction, was onto something when he described the buy as a "business decision". "They'll put it in a museum and have people lining around the corner to see it," he said.

It is difficult to imagine anyone hoping to make much of a profit on a resale after paying such an outrageous price. But building a museum's pitch for visitors around it could be a way to make economic sense of the deal.

As for starving artists, there may be a message for them in the Salvator Mundi sale if the painting ends up as a public museum's jewel. 

Artwork that a bank or a wealthy client could put on their walls may sell for millions of dollars. Masterpieces by long-dead painters may sell for tens of millions. But a work that can be the crown jewel, the main attraction for millions looking for a brush with true art, can be valued higher than a good-sized company or a palace. 

If artistic ambition does not stretch so far these days, it should.

BLOOMBERG

•The writer is a Bloomberg View columnist.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 18, 2017, with the headline 'Why paying so much for a painting is not crazy'. Print Edition | Subscribe