The Gray Market: Why Christie’s ‘Salvator Mundi’ Sale Is Riskier Than It Seems (and Other Insights)

This week, our columnist examines the risk inherent in Christie's da Vinci sale and an unnerving potential new trend in museum architecture.

A security personnel stands next to Leonardo da Vinci's "Salvator Mundi" after it was unveiled at Christie's in New York on October 10, 2017. Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images.

Every Monday morning, artnet News brings you The Gray Market. The column decodes important stories from the previous week—and offers unparalleled insight into the inner workings of the art industry in the process. 

Since it’s felt like a pack of tiny demons has been tending a bonfire in my throat this weekend, here are two takes on suffering and salvation in the industry…


On Tuesday morning, Christie’s revealed the two marquee lots in its November 15 postwar and contemporary evening sale: Andy Warhol’s Sixty Last Suppers, a monumental silkscreen homage to the Leonardo masterwork carrying an estimate of $50 million, and da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, billed by Christie’s as the only painting by the Renaissance virtuoso still in private hands—and staked to an estimate of $100 million as a result. (Note: Both works have already been guaranteed by third parties.)

I could write at least three posts on the dynamics at play for the offering of Salvator Mundi. But since A) others have already called attention to the painting’s twisty attribution saga (first credited as a Leonardo in 2007!) and complicated legal history (Rybolovlev/Bouvier alert!); B) I already wrote about its past pricing curiosities a few years ago; and C) right now all I want to do is crawl into bed and pass out, let’s focus on one key component alone: namely, Christie’s marketing campaign.

Nate Freeman at ARTnews wrote that “the pomp and circumstance surrounding the announcement of both works was a display of chutzpah rarely seen from Christie’s—the auction house said it had not staged such an unveiling before.” Per my colleague Eileen Kinsella, “The consignments were announced at the auction house’s Rockefeller Center headquarters…with remarks by a host of executives including postwar and contemporary art department co-heads Loïc Gouzer and Alex Rotter, along with Old Master senior specialist Alan Wintermute and Old Master department head Francois de Poortere.”

Loic Gouzer [center] speaks as Christie's unveils Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi with Andy Warhol's Sixty Last Suppers at Christie's New York on October 10, 2017 in New York City. Photo by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Christie's Auction House.

Loïc Gouzer (center) speaks as Christie’s unveils Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi with Andy Warhol’s Sixty Last Suppers at Christie’s on October 10 in New York City. Photo by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Christie’s Auction House.

If all that sounds too stuffy and old school for you, Christie’s attempted to sex up the Jesus by installing Salvator Mundi behind a set of gleaming metallic doors, slid away by guards for a dramatic debut at the press conference. The house’s website now hosts a plethora of content on the artwork it is meme-ing as “The Last da Vinci.” And among those digital offerings is a 33-second promo video that, contrary to the relative youth now leading its postwar and contemporary department, I can only describe as an old person’s idea of a young person’s aesthetic.

(On that last point: Which collectors are getting charged up by a score that sounds like a bargain-bin mashup of Hans Zimmer and The Chainsmokers? Why was the painting shot with a slasher-flick push-in while hanging in some shapeless void? Did someone actually pitch the title sequence to American Horror Story as an overall creative comp, or have I just suffered minor brain damage from a day of violent sneezing?)

However, the most notable plank in Christie’s spare-no-expense promotional campaign for Salvator Mundi doubles as the simplest of all—at least, conceptually. In advance of a weeklong exhibition at its Manhattan headquarters from October 28th to November 4th, the house will “tour this exceptional painting to key locations around the world, including Hong Kong (13–16 October), San Francisco (18–20 October) and London (24–26 October).”

Traveling a prized painting for clients is not a new tactic in the industry. Many, if not most, serious collectors still want to see a work of this caliber in person before deciding whether (and how much) to offer for it. And if an auction house hopes to drum up interest among a whole school of super-elite bidders rather than one or two specific whales, it makes more sense to do a roadshow than to fly the select buyers in for a viewing.

However, Salvator Mundi‘s itinerary strikes me as exceptionally ambitious, especially considering the age and rarity of the painting. I’m no more a conservator or Old Master specialist than I am a fire-and-brimstone street preacher. But I’ve worked on the gallery side long enough to know that every install, de-install, and shipment introduces risk into the life of an artwork, even if it’s fresh out of the studio. So as a general rule, very old, very valuable pieces tend to be moved around as little as possible—and when exceptions are made, no corners can be cut on handling or transport.

While this undoubtedly transforms “The Last da Vinci” into a budgetary sadist, the journey also generates pain on an entirely different level: by amplifying the prospect of physical catastrophe. Granted, I’d hand-wash my next load of laundry in a vat of hobo sweat if Christie’s hasn’t booked Salvator Mundi’s travels, start to finish, with the most expensive logistics specialists money can buy.

Still, it’s impossible to completely spend accidents out of existence. One flat tire on a dedicated art shuttle during an ugly stretch of road, one muscle twitch in an art handler’s arm at the wrong moment, and Salvator Mundi could be damaged or destroyed ahead of its blockbuster sale—no matter how much money went toward preventing exactly those scenarios.

I’m not saying Christie’s is acting irresponsibly, or even out of character, by engineering such an intense roadshow for such a historic painting. (Gouzer in particular has earned his reputation as a glutton for risk.) I’m just saying that the grand tour involves a not-insignificant gamble, no matter how strong the house’s fine-art insurance policy, third-party-guarantee parameters, and logistical prowess are.

If I had any stake in Salvator Mundi‘s pending sale, the added uncertainty would probably have me building shrines to every deity our species has ever concocted. But in the ultra-high end of the 2017 art market, Christie’s aggressive marketing efforts prove once again that sellers have to spend big money—and take some big chances—if they hope to reach the terrestrial heaven of the almighty dollar. [ARTnews, artnet News]

Security clears the Louvre following a bomb scare in May. Photo: Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images.


On Friday, Kelsey Atherton examined a grim, if increasingly necessary, trend in architecture and urban planning: design as a control for mass tragedy. Atherton elaborated on the theme through examples spanning the spectrum of loss, from the deliberately minimal visual cover given to anyone approaching the new Sandy Hook Elementary School, to installing “just so many oversized planters on a pedestrian thoroughfare to prevent an attack by car bomb from hitting the crowd or the buildings behind the barricade,” to running complex computer simulations to model the flow of panicked fans while drafting blueprints for a new arena.

In what no doubt qualifies as one of the darkest reactions I’ve ever had to an art or architecture article, my immediate thought was this: Are museum architects already designing our cultural centers with similar thoughts in mind? And if not, how much longer is it wise for them to avoid doing so?

Remember, forward-thinking institutions are already paying serious cash to try to protect themselves and their collections from climate-change catastrophe. It was also only about eight months ago that a lone man wielding a machete attacked a soldier at the underground entrance to the Louvre, setting off a volley of defensive gunfire that triggered emergency crowd-control procedures in the museum above. And worse still, indoor and outdoor music venues—from Paris to Las Vegas—have recently become staging grounds for mass violence…in the same era in which art museums have begun programming more concert series and events with mainstream appeal than ever before.

If you’re hoping I’m about to drop some kind of light-hearted zinger to alleviate the sense of foreboding, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I hate the fact that my mind had reason to go here. But given the widespread (and justified) institutional intent to attract large crowds, as well as the increasing frequency of large-scale tragedies (particularly here in the gun-mad US), this line of thinking may already be reshaping our nonprofit art spaces in ways we’re not aware of. And if not yet, I have a feeling that these equal parts sad and savvy architectural safeguards will quietly become line items in some big-budget museum plans very soon. [The Verge]

That’s all for this illness-shortened edition. ‘Til next time, remember: The hotter the flames, the harder the steel (or so I hope).

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