The Gray Market: Why Selling the Mona Lisa Would Be a Ridiculous Way to Try to Dig France Out of Massive Debt (and Other Insights)
Our columnist responds to a French entrepreneur's proposal that selling the Mona Lisa could net France a whopping €50 billion.
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.
This week, crashing a thought experiment…
LOUVRE IT OR LEAVE IT
On Tuesday, the Independent relayed a provocative proposal by entrepreneur Stéphane Distinguin: that the French government could help eliminate its colossal (and still building) debt from the global crisis by selling the Mona Lisa. And after careful consideration, I’m here to tell you that it is a hilariously bad idea—just not for the reasons you might think.
For context, Distinguin laid out his argument in a lengthy op-ed in French-language magazine Usbek & Rica in early May. The gist is that it’s good business in times of financial crisis to sell any assets that are both easily transferable and able to bring back outsized value in comparison to what would be lost in the trade. The Mona Lisa, which continues to draw millions of visitors to the Louvre every year by virtue of its status as the world’s most famous painting, fits the description.
Distinguin admits that the price must be “insane” for this plot to be worth pursuing, but his efforts as a recreational art economist have left him convinced that the Mona Lisa would indeed incite the necessary market frenzy. In fact, he’s even landed on an asking price that he believes perfectly straddles the line between hysteria and achievability: €50 billion ($54.5 billion).
Yes, that’s “billion” with a “b.” And if you think it’s absurd to suggest Leonardo’s best-known painting would go for two orders of magnitude more than his $450.3 million Salvator Mundi, Distinguin has an answer for you: ”I was told that my estimate was very overvalued, even far-fetched, but each time without real arguments.”
In short, he’s standing firm on this hill.
Now, before I launch into what I would consider my “real argument” for why he is wildly, comically off target, I just want to call out two important points: first, I’m sure some of the finer points in his op-ed are being lost in Google Translation; and second, he states that his idea is an intentional “provocation” intended to advance a larger, legitimate conversation.
I respect this approach, so let’s use the same one as we run up that hill of his, shall we?
STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND
Distinguin rests his €50 billion valuation for the Mona Lisa on three pillars. The first is a cursory price comparison to Salvator Mundi (in which he also unhesitatingly co-signs my colleague Kenny Schachter’s conclusion about its location). The translation reads: “Salvator Mundi, which was much less certain, was bought for $450 million to end up on the yacht of a Saudi prince. We can expect more than 100 times more for the most famous painting in the world, with the significant premium of the first.”
His second point is that Italian officials allegedly assigned an insurance value of at least €1 billion ($1.1 billion) to Leonardo’s celebrated sketch Vitruvian Man when Venice’s Gallerie dell’Accademia loaned the work to the Louvre for its blockbuster Leonardo retrospective last year. The only place I can find any reference to this valuation comes from the local Italian media, who, to put it diplomatically, have earned an international reputation for being cavalier with facts. But for the sake of this exercise, I’ll accept the valuation and keep moving.
His third point is that the Mona Lisa’s gargantuan value to French tourism should be factored into any consideration of its price. He estimates that at least two million tourists travel to Paris strictly to see the painting every year, and that each tourist spends approximately €1,500 ($1,635) during their stay. Therefore, the Mona Lisa is worth at least €3 billion ($3.3 billion) to the French economy annually. In that context, €50 billion would be a steal to buyers, as it would equate to slightly less than 17 years’ worth of its de facto earning power.
This, dear reader, is the argument that Distinguin found critics unable to pierce as of May 6, 2020. Whether that says more about him or who he’s been listening to is a question I’ve been pondering for days.
Okay, let’s hit these three points in reverse order. Distinguin’s invocation of tourism value is creative outsider thinking. The only problem is that it’s completely irrelevant to the way real dealers, appraisers, and collectors actually determine the market value of artworks.
After 15 years in the business, I have never once heard of a museum calling in an economist to calculate a painting’s share of annual gate revenue, let alone metropolitan tourism value, before deciding on a fair target price for its deaccessioning. It’s not necessarily a bad idea; it just has no connection to reality, like when the average teenager declares from the depths of their first awful hangover that they’re never going to drink again.
What do museums do instead? Call in fine-art appraisers, usually from auction houses hoping to secure the consignment. And in addition to assessing the work’s physical condition, the appraisers largely base their valuations on direct sales comps.
This leads us to the supposed €1 billion insurance valuation for Vitruvian Man. Similar to the tourism value conversation, this point is one that no doubt seems intriguing to art-market outsiders… and instantly proves to art professionals that Distinguin has very little understanding of how the industry actually works.
The key is this: insurance value and market value are related but not interchangeable. A full accounting of why would be its own post (which, incidentally, I wrote here). But as a rule, insurance valuations tend to be anchored artificially high. The reason? If the work is damaged, the insurance value becomes the number from which the insurance carrier’s own appraiser must calculate a “percentage loss in value” to determine an appropriate payout to the policyholder.
Since that appraiser is incentivized to minimize the loss to the carrier (their client), i.e. to determine the lowest possible percentage loss, it’s smart business for the policyholder to secure the highest initial insurance valuation they can. (For example, 20 percent of $1,000 means way more cash than 20 percent of $100.) Sure, the policyholder will have to pay a higher premium in the interim, but it could more than make up the difference if they need to file a claim later on. So even if Vitruvian Man did have a €1 billion insurance value—again, a questionable data point to begin with—that doesn’t mean we should consider it likely to fetch anything close to that value if it were to actually come to market.
That leaves us with Distinguin’s comp to the Salvator Mundi. In principle, it’s his best argument for getting the Mona Lisa to €50 billion. If only he’d done a little auction-history homework before thundering in with the most bombastic profit projections this side of a Ponzi scheme….
Is the Mona Lisa worth more than Salvator Mundi on the open market? Absolutely.
Is it worth significantly more? Yeah, I think so.
But “more than 100 times more”? (111.1 times more, to be exact.) That’s where I have to say, “Pump the brakes, mon ami.”
Here’s the problem: Saying “Salvator Mundi, which was much less certain, was bought for $450 million”—therefore “we can expect more than 100 times more for the most famous painting in the world” is very similar to saying, “Hicham El Guerrouj, who only had the benefit of late-1990s training methods in Morocco, set the world record by running a mile in three minutes and 43 seconds—therefore we can expect more than 100 times more speed for the best middle-distance runner in a more advanced future, making it reasonable to assume the next record for the mile will be 2.01 seconds.”
Now, you can of course try to downplay that comparison by saying that the art market is not bound by the same limits as human physiology. Obviously, that’s true. But my point is that sudden 111-fold increases within the same category almost never happen. It’s not as if the most expensive painting ever auctioned before Salvator Mundi sold for $4.05 million!
Art-market history proves as much. My feature for the Fall 2019 Artnet Intelligence Report included an inflation-adjusted comparison of all seven works that held the title for priciest painting sold at auction in the preceding 30 years. The full list shows just how preposterous it would be to assume that even the most famous painting in the world could sell for €50 billion anytime in the near future, even if the world weren’t staring down the worst economic carnage since the Great Depression.
In 2019 dollars, the premium-inclusive price of Salvator Mundi (which was sold in November 2017) was $470.6 million. Once you make the same adjustment for the previous record-holder, Pablo Picasso’s Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) (sold in May 2015), its price comes in at $193.8 million. On an even playing field, then, Salvator Mundi was less than 2.5 times pricier than its closest competitor in three decades.
Just as crucial, that 2.5X increase was itself a huge—and hugely unlikely—step up. This becomes apparent from the other five paintings that previously held the “most expensive” title. Adjusted to 2019 dollars, their prices range from $125.1 million to $161.7 million.
Proportionally speaking, then, the largest leap between two works on the list prior to Salvator Mundi was between Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud (sold in November 2013) and Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’), sold a year and a half later. How many more times pricier was the latter than the former? Less than 1.25X.
So what was the smallest difference in sales price between two works on the list? It turns out that the record price actually once decreased when you convert the two sales to real dollars. Although Picasso’s Nude, Green Leaves and Bust sold in the auction room for $2.3 million more than the artist’s Garçon à la Pipe did six years earlier, adjusting for inflation shows the true price of Nude, Green Leaves and Bust was $16.2 million lower than its predecessor—a drop of 11 percent.
So from 1989 to 2019, every new record-holder for most expensive painting at auction sold for a price between 0.89 times and 2.5 times more than the previous record-holder. Reminder: Distinguin is suggesting that, less than three years after the Salvator Mundi shattered the previous price apex by the largest margin in 30 years, the Mona Lisa would sell for 111 times more.
Could it still happen, though? I mean, it wouldn’t violate the laws of nature. But the next time a tornado hits my hometown, it could also reduce the house I grew up in to a pile of wreckage that, viewed from just the right angle, looks uncannily like a supersized version of Michelangelo’s David. That doesn’t mean the local tourism board should structure their plans around it!
In seriousness, having read the rest of his op-ed, I honestly think Distinguin’s heart is in the right place, and there is some wisdom in his proposal to sell the Mona Lisa. It at least recognizes that, whether in the cultural sphere or the political one, the path to a better world demands real people make actual sacrifices. The sooner we all make peace with that inconvenient truth, the better off we’ll be.
Let’s just try to do it with some grounding in factual reality, because as the internet kids say, this ain’t it. Otherwise, we’ll only make matters worse than they already are in this historical catastrophe—and Mona Lisa’s famous smile will read like the mockery we deserve.
That’s all for this week. ‘Til next time, remember: genius is often criticized in its own time, but that doesn’t mean that every idea criticized in its own time is genius.
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