The Discovery of the Century

December 27, 2017


On Saturday, October 28th I walked up to Christie’s auction house at 20 Rockefeller Plaza (49th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues) to see Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, Latin for Savior of the World.

There was a line outside this two-day event, which was from October 28th to the 30th. Then the painting moved on for viewings in three cities before it was returned to New York for the Post-War and Contemporary Art auction at Christie’s on November 15th at 7:00 pm.

A sign at the entrance to the line said, “No food or drink allowed. I said to myself, “Who on earth would go to Christie’s with a hot dog or soda in one’s hands.” I guess it happens. Then a very courteous young man came by and said, “If your phone or camera has a flash please turn it off.”  

Christie’s obviously knows what it’s doing. It has roughly 350 auctions annually with prices ranging from $200 to over $100 million. It also has regular sales online and 10 salesrooms around the world: London, New York, Paris, Geneva, Milan, Amsterdam, Dubai, Zurich, Hong Kong and Shanghai.


There were only about 30 people on the line so it moved quickly (about 15 minutes) as groups of three or four were allowed in. When entering, the first artwork on view was Christie’s other showstopper, Andy Warhol’s final work Sixty Last Suppers a huge 32 ft. wide silkscreen.

Then we all moved into a very dark room and voila! The da Vinci! It was beautifully lit and very mysterious-looking. No one said a word or snapped a picture. The group was very respectful I thought. Salvator Mundi is 26” x 18” and painted in oil on a wood panel. Dating back from around 1500, this painting is one of fewer than 20 by da Vinci existing in the world today.  


Salvator Mundi had been heavily over-painted which made it look like a copy. NYU conservator, Dianne Dwyer Modestini, who worked on it for months, reports that the truth was revealed very slowly as she painstakingly removed the layers of varnish and over-paint in her studio. One clue was a “pentimento” or alteration in the painting that showed traces of previous work. Another was the head of ringlets on the figure. They are exactly the same as St. John the Baptist at the Louvre. “We started adding many things into the equation and finally we said to each other, ‘It has to be a Leonardo.’” This was followed by seven years of da Vinci experts from around the globe giving their opinions of the work.  


I called Christie’s three times to order two free tickets for the on-site auction on November 15th. No luck. So on the evening of this event I watched it at home on my 24-inch computer screen. What a performance for a painting that was once owned by three kings!

The phone bids started at $75 million, quickly went to $200 million, then rose to $300 million and finally to a record-breaking $450 million – the highest ever paid for a painting at an auction. Bidding took 20 minutes and ended with a sustained applause from both the audience and the auctioneer, Jussi Pylkkänen, Christie’s Global President.

The New York Post’s cheeky front page appeared on Thursday, November 16, 2017 – the day after Christie’s auction and the astounding bid made on the restored Leonardo da Vinci painting.  

It was one of the most nerve-racking 20 minutes I’ve ever had.     


I have just finished The Auctioneer: Adventures in the Art Trade published in 2016. This book is by Simon de Pury, the former chairman of Sotheby’s Europe and William Stadiem, a bestselling author. The Auctioneer peels back the secrets and lies of the age-old rivalry between Christie’s and Sotheby’s. For me, the most fun was reading about the celebrities bidding on items they wanted and how fast they did it.

Simon de Pury, the Mick Jagger of art auctions

For example, a phone-in bid from Andrew Lloyd Webber in London took six minutes. It was a Picasso that the owners bought in 1946 for $22,000. Webber’s bid was $29.1 million.

Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger, painted in 1955 and bought by Andrew Lloyd Webber for $29.1 million

Or even better: Elizabeth Taylor on the phone by her Bel-Air swimming pool where she bid on a diamond brooch from the estate of the Duchess of Windsor. It was the first piece of jewelry she bought by herself, for herself and she paid $600,000. No Nicky Hilton, Mike Todd, Eddie Fisher or Richard Burton – just Liz on her own and doing great.

Shaun Nelson-Henrick

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