The work easily surpassed the previous auction record for any artwork of $160m, set by Pablo Picasso's Les Femmes d'Alger (Verion O) in 2015.
The winning bid on Salvator Mundi (a jump from $370m to $400m) drew gasps from those in the packed saleroom at Christie's Rockefeller Center headquarters in central Manhattan.
Christie’s had secured a third-party guarantee meaning the picture was always bound to sell on the night. With an ‘estimate on request’ in the region of $100m, it drew bids in the room but was eventually came down to a battle between two parties on the phone. The final price including premium was $450.3m.
The vendor, Russian billionaire potash magnate Dmitry Rybolovlev who also owns Monaco football club, made a huge gain on the $127.5m he had reportedly paid for the painting in 2013.
Unusually, Salvator Mundi was offered as “a special lot” in Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art evening sale – clearly an attempt to pitch the picture at buyers beyond the traditional Old Master market and into areas where more of the world’s biggest-spending art collectors tend to operate.
This and an unprecedented marketing campaign for the picture appeared to pay off as the previously most expensive Old Master at auction, a record that stood for 15 years, was the £45m bid for Sir Peter Paul Rubens’ The Massacre of the Innocents at Sotheby’s London in 2002.
There are fewer than 20 known paintings fully ascribed to Leonardo and, while the auction of Salvator Mundi may have been a never-to-be-repeated opportunity to acquire a painting by the artist, the recent history was not ideal.
The picture had been left unrecognised for at least a century before being rediscovered by a small group of American dealers at a regional auction house in the US in 2005. They then sold it privately via an $80m deal brokered by Sotheby’s in 2013 to Swiss ‘Freeports’ baron Yves Bouvier.
Bouvier then swiftly ‘flipped’ it to Rybolovlev, making a profit of over $40m in the process.
Bouvier and Rybolovlev later became involved in an intense legal battle which began in 2015 with Rybolovlev alleging he had been overcharged on a series of purchases made through Bouvier, including Salvator Mundi. While Bouvier has strenuously denied the allegations, Rybolovlev has since sold other works in his collection through Christie’s.
£1 = $1.315