When Jussi Pylkkänen brought down the hammer on Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi on 16th November 2017 in New York City, it was an audacious act of death or glory. Onlookers were amazed, shocked and delighted: Christie’s had reclaimed its position as the number one auction house and the art market had made another great leap forward, with dizzying rewards. t was a high risk strategy and even on the day of the sale, there was speculation that the picture would not reach its guarantee of $90,000,000 USD, let alone the eventual hammer price of $400,000,000 USD.
The sale was of particular interest locally as the picture itself was owned by Russian businessman and avid art collector Dmitry Rybolovlev. The piece was one of many art works that had been sold to him by free port king Yves Bouvier. This once happy relationship has soured in recent years, leading to an ongoing legal battle –known as the Bouvier Case – that involved the dealer’s dramatic arrest at Monaco’s exclusive Belle Époque building in 2015 amid serious accusations of fraud. Riviera Insider caught up with Georgina Adam, editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper to discuss the sale and its implications in the context of her new book, Dark Side of the Boom: The Excesses of the Art Market in the 21st Century.
Why do you think the Salvator Mundi picture achieved such a record-breaking price at auction?
The price was a surprise to almost everyone. However, it was the chance to buy the last Leonardo painting on the open market and as such is the ultimate trophy work, so the owner gets enormous bragging rights. Art has always been a way of showing wealth, prestige and taste. There are also rumours that the buyer could be an investment fund, in which case the painting would be monetised by being sent on world tours. I am not sure this makes sense financially, but I am prepared to be surprised.
Is the sale of this picture a game-changer for the art market?
Probably, in that it must hugely reinforce the art-as-an-investment market since people will see that such an immense return can be made on an artwork. However, the Leonardo was a one-off and such a sale is not repeatable. Still, it shows how much money can be available for art.
What do you think the implications of this sale are in the tangled web of litigation between Bouvier and Rybolovlev?
Complicated. Rybolovlev is still bringing a court case against Bouvier and Sotheby’s, and this sale hasn’t changed that. He still contends that he was defrauded – and has sold other works at a loss. While this sale backs up Bouvier’s assertion that he did very well for Rybo, the other sales tend to show the contrary so it’s difficult to draw a conclusion at the moment.
In your book you discuss the ‘dark side of the boom’, the secretive nature of the transactions taking place. There seem to be layers of knowledge and information where not everything is revealed all at once. Why and how often does this happen?
The art market is not unregulated, as is often said, but it is lightly regulated. Some things that would be illegal in other sectors – such as insider trading – are not so in the art market. Dealers can take advantage of information to buy and sell to their profit; in many cases personal relationships are important. Vendors prize their anonymity and prices for private transactions are secret. You have to be ‘in the know’ to find out, for example, how much something sold for and who was selling it. In real estate, for example, prices are much more public and this wouldn’t be possible.
The basis of the Bouvier case seems to be Rybolovlev’s discovery of the true nature of these deals. Do you think that the whole truth will ever be revealed in this case or others? Do we even need to know?
I do not think we know the whole story yet and it has many ramifications. We will have to await the outcome of the various court cases to get some clarity and even then, perhaps we won’t know everything. Of course, it would be interesting to get the whole story, but there are two sides to every question. The fact that the story involves multi-million dollar transactions and rare artworks makes it even more fascinating.
Is portable wealth a reality?
One of the interests of art is that it is transportable and can be bought in one currency and sold in another, making it useful to take advantage of currency fluctuations. In a way, it could be a sort of shadow currency. There are plenty of companies which will move it about… For a fee.
The works in the Bouvier case were bought outside of the visible market. Can you explain the difference between the visible and invisible art market?
There are public transactions, at auction, although even these are not always as transparent as they seem since works put up for auction may well be ‘presold’ to a guarantor, someone who has agreed to buy a work at a certain price. If someone else bids on it and wins it, then the guarantor gets a percentage of the amount above ‘his’ agreed price. Then there are transactions through dealers. In most cases, the works are put on view in a gallery or fair, although the final price paid may not be revealed since discounts are common. These two cases are visible. However, there may be private transactions through an auction house or dealer, or directly from an owner to a buyer, and these deals are invisible, since the work of art, the price and the vendor and buyer are only known to the person organising the transaction. This tends to be at the very high price levels.
Are there any trends that you think we should be looking out for in 2018?
Lots. I think there will be a revival of interest in Old Master paintings. Martin Kemp, the recognised Leonardo scholar, will be inundated with (even more) images of works the owners believe are by Leonardo. He already gets one a month. People will be clamouring to give guarantees to the auction houses. Art investment companies will use the Leonardo to tout their services!
Where would you advise that readers of Riviera Insider buy?
My advice for buying any art is to go to a reputable dealer (there are associations with codes of practice) or auction house and not be tempted by things that look like a bargain but with murky provenance – on the internet or elsewhere. Before buying something, look at prices other works by the artist have made, look at how much the artist is producing, who else has acquired work. Bear in mind that only a small percentage of contemporary artworks bought today will gain in value. Most won’t, so it’s best to like it and want to keep it in case it doesn’t ever gain value...