by George Wilson
Early this year the ‘Salvator Mundi’, allegedly Leonardo da Vinci’s last ever painting, was back on the front pages of newspapers. Sold for a record-breaking $450 million at auction in November 2017, it has failed to appear at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, who had announced they would be displaying it on behalf of the buyer, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. No one knows exactly why the unveiling has been postponed, but whenever this famed picture resurfaces in the news, troops of art historians, collectors, connoisseurs and lawyers all rear their ugly heads, groping to stake out a piece of the story for themselves.
Art historians have been weaving the epic legends of Leonardo since 1550, when Giorgio Vasari published Lives of the Artists, a collection of biographies which began the Western world’s fascination with the ‘eccentric artist’ type. But beyond this cultural heritage, why does the 'Salvator Mundi' capture our interest? The mystery surrounding the artist himself? The painting’s beauty? Or the thrill of the everyman’s story, of finding a Leonardo for a hundred dollars in a junk auction? These elements are all part of what makes the painting’s journey so exciting.
But unfortunately, at the heart of fascination surrounding the painting, is greed. Its hyperinflation from a bashed-up, old panel to the most expensive Old Master painting ever sold was achieved almost entirely by the picture’s salesmen and their undaunted desire for money. You would be hard-pressed to find a headline that didn’t allude to what it sold for. The painting’s rapid change between hands, culminating in a much grander location than it started, demonstrates how easily monetary value can corrupt and distract from an artwork’s other, more interesting qualities.
Ridiculous sums like $450 million are at the core of the art market’s intrigue – and also its flaws. Auctioneers and art historians collaborate to create a sense of hushed mystique around artists, generating money out of persuasive whispers. High end auction house sales rely on delicately planned financial deals behind the scenes, allowing the charismatic staff at auction houses to set wildly high prices directed at a targeted wealthy buyer. One extreme example of calculated hyperinflation via schmoozing was the sale of David Hockney’s ‘Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)’ in 2018. Although the previous auction record for Hockney was $28.5 million, auctioneers set a new price tag of $80 million on this painting, aimed at the co-founder of Microsoft, Paul Allen, who had openly spoken about wanting it. But Christie’s attempts were foiled when Allen died before the auction took place. Once the targeted buyer is taken out of the formula, the hollow mythmaking of auctioneers is exposed. The Hockney reached nowhere near its optimistic estimate. In the same year, blockbuster artworks including a Van Gogh landscape and a Monet which were predicted to be rising in value failed to reach their vast auction estimates by millions at Christie’s.
There is an element of the emperor’s new clothes to the story of the ‘Salvator Mundi’. If the financial worth of an artwork can be grossly inflated for no real reason except that auctioneers have found someone who will pay, why should we care about the artwork’s innate qualities? Money places an ugly spin on the art world and distracts from the original reason you might want to own a picture or sculpture: what you love about it. The more one learns about how the art market operates and how artworks are priced, the more the obsession with financial value seems to be irreversible.
After passing through auction houses as a painting by a follower of da Vinci, the ‘Salvator Mundi’ eventually reached such a legendary price because it was shown at the National Gallery as a real Leonardo, despite questionable proof that this was this case, as Ben Lewis has described in his careful analysis of the provenance of the picture in The Last Leonardo. Museums have the power to magnify the reputation (and market value) of an artist. This cynical association between public galleries and commercial dealers is felt far more in the UK, where museums are highly discouraged from selling works from their public collections for financial reasons because their deaccessioning powers are specified by the law. National Museum staff are also restricted from dealing art works commercially, to prevent them from benefitting personally whilst keeping important works out of the public eye, in private collections.
In Abu Dhabi there is far less unease surrounding purchasing power, private ownership and public display. Abu Dhabi’s new Louvre now boasts a culturally diverse collection on a par with the British Museum – and it was all acquired in under 50 years. The financial power of the museum is almost unparalleled internationally and places Dubai on the world stage. The new Louvre has acquired a wealth of globally renowned cultural objects whilst simultaneously bypassing the current museological arguments which surround the restitution of objects stolen by colonial powers. Abu Dhabi paid for them ‘fairly’. The objects in their collection were all bought at international auctions, unlike so many of the British Museum’s such as the Parthenon marbles: figureheads for the heated debate concerning artworks acquired during colonial occupation. Between 2008 and 2009, the global market recession paved the way for a buyer’s market. Art was cheap and representatives from the new Louvre were able to buy anything they liked, acquiring nearly 300 objects in 2013.
Obviously, some objects in the Abu Dhabi Louvre still carry a colonial history. The Egyptian funeral set of Princess Henuttawy from 10th century BCE was probably taken from its original site under French colonial rule. The set includes the princess’ wrapped body within a painted, golden cartonnage case and three wooden sarcophagi. Its purchase in the early 2000s adds a new layer of provenance to the funeral set – which seems to have erased its colonial significance. In Abu Dhabi, away from the country that stole it from Egypt, its uneasy provenance is partially obscured. The art market may operate in the mode of a modern business sector, but its currency cannot be separated from ethical questions surrounding the intertwined histories of provenance and cultural domination.
Money has made the art world go round since the first museums were established. The Wunderkammer (or ‘cabinet of curiosities’) of 16th century German rulers such as Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II – and the extensive collections of Medici princes in Italy – formed the archetype of what museums look like now. Rulers would show off their collections to visiting ambassadors in order to show favour – Cosimo de Medici’s Uffizi Gallery was literally housed in the Florentine magistrates’ offices, establishing a symbiosis of money, culture and politics. Just as titanic oil companies and banks (BP, UBS, Deutsche Bank) have in the last 40 years begun to build expensive, blockbuster art collections housed partially in conference rooms to provide impressive small talk before a big deal, both Cosimo and Rudolf would display their extensive collections of Titian paintings to visiting dignitaries. But the early modern collectors were lovers of art. Cosimo once said that his artworks gave him 'the greatest satisfaction and contentment because they are not only for the honour of God but are likewise for [his] own remembrance.' The European princes appreciated their political currency without losing sight of why they began cultivating the arts: out of love.
Even Donald Trump has been known to exercise this kind of cultural bragging. Trump's biographer Tim O’Brien recalls visiting him on his private jet in 2015, only to find a Renoir painting, ‘Two Sisters on the Terrace’, hanging on the plane’s wall: a conservationist's nightmare. Trump claimed that it was a real Renoir, despite the fact that the original is hanging in the Art Institute of Chicago – with a watertight provenance. When O’Brien mentioned this, Trump ignored him; ‘you know, that’s a real Renoir’, he repeated, ‘it’s worth 10 million.’ The painting later appeared in the background of one of his first interviews as President, in his office at Trump Tower. Why was Trump so desperate to assert the authenticity of the work? Does Donald have a passion for late French Impressionists?
Trump hardly has a reputation as a connoisseur of art – most of the paintings he has personally decided to buy or commission have been of himself. According to Vanity Fair journalist Mark Bowden, when a woman entered the President’s office during their interview to show him a range of (all gold) fabrics for his Florida Estate, he dismissed her saying, ‘I want it really rich. Rich, rich, elegant, incredible.’ In one of Trumps’ books, he includes a line from the 1975 book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: ‘being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art ... making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.’
‘The Renoir Sucks at Painting’ movement was inspired by Trump’s Renoir anecdote. Presented as a protest with a playful spin, the movement’s Instagram page features vigilantes making disgusted faces as they gaze at a Renoir. They also hold demonstrations outside galleries that exhibit Renoirs, with placards that read, ‘God hates Renoir’, ‘We’re not iconoclasts Renoir just sucks at painting’ and ‘ReNOir’. A descendant of Renoir's spoke out against the movement, yet again using financial value as an indication of the artwork’s quality: ‘When your great-great-grandfather paints anything worth $78.1m dollars ... then you can criticize. In the meantime, it is safe to say that the free market has spoken and Renoir did not suck at painting.’ Max Geller, the group’s organiser, questioned ‘the idea that we should let the free market dictate quality’ and suggested the museum replace its Renoir collection with work that reflects more than ‘white males and their white male gaze.’
Merely stepping into a public gallery implicates you in the symbiosis of wealth and politics. As public funding becomes more and more limited, galleries in the US and UK rely increasingly on private donations. It made headlines earlier this year when the Sackler family’s £1 million donation to the National Portrait Gallery in London was rejected because of the family’s pharmaceutical company, which produces the painkiller, OxyContin. It's hard to tell whether donors give to museums because they have a genuine invested interest in the arts, or for the lavish thanks and cultural prestige that their donations elicit. In 2011, Len Blavatnik pledged a substantial amount of the £260 million total needed to complete Tate Modern’s new extension. To show their gratitude, Tate shut their doors to the public just after lunchtime for Len’s birthday, where he hosted a vast party in the Turbine Hall. Celebrities gave speeches about how great Len was, a four-course meal was provided with models serving at his table and identically dressed women in stilettos played ‘Money Money Money’ on violins as his guests entered the hall.
It may come across as cynical to reassert the staggering influence of money in the international art world as public institutions do make a concerted effort to widen access and representation within their spaces. But as auction records for blockbuster artists soar to such ridiculous sums, it has become a critical time to re-evaluate the effect of the art market on our public institutions. If the calculated schmoozing of young, good-looking auctioneers is all it takes to make a rotten wood panel into a multi-million Leonardo, then the art world is dangerously closing to letting empty mythmaking and financial worth replace the innate qualities of an artwork.
We have forgotten the genuine drive the first collectors: Rudolf II stopped using his Wunderkammer for political gain towards the end of his reign, retreating deeper into his gallery and neglecting his ruling duties. The reclusive nature of collecting is emphasised in John Barclay 's satire Euphormionis Lusinini Satyricon (1605-7), which probably alludes to Rudolf II and his total absorption in his objects. The figure of Aquilius is a self-indulgent, solitary man, who commissions rooms full of beautiful painted women, orders rows of virgin women to his accommodation and then chooses one based on how closely they resemble his treasured paintings, prizing art over reality. By the time of his death, not even Rudolf ’s family knew the vastness of his eccentric collection, which included a six-foot unicorn horn, an agate bowl he believed was the Holy Grail, soil from which God made Adam and many occult books and instruments, one of which he apparently used to summon angels. The beauty and mystique of these objects led Rudolf to lock himself away with them, not the desire to further his international reputation. The National Portrait Gallery’s rejection of the Sackler donation is hopefully the first step in a mainstream movement against the art world’s increasingly undisguised commercialism.
Art by George Wilson
GEORGE WILSON reads History of Art at St John’s College. She is currently deep in a country music phase and has the cowboy boots to prove it.