Leap of faith in this high art

Editorial | 21 Nov 2017

Art appreciation is always subjective, as in time-honored adage that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Therefore, it's absolutely proper to invest a fortune in some pieces that fascinate the buyers - regardless of the eyebrows that are raised every time a record is set.

But the colossal sum of US$450 million (HK$3.51 billion) being paid for a Renaissance painting is just awesome.

That's the stratospheric figure an unidentified buyer has splashed out for Salvator Mundi, a painting thought to be Leonardo da Vinci's only piece left in private hands.

When money is no longer an issue, pride and prestige take over. Ownership of an extremely rare art piece can elevate the ego to new heights, while the value is stored and expands over time.

There's been a lot of speculation over who was on the other end of the phone at Christie's auction in New York.

Could it be somebody from China? I'd have thought that in the past. However, Beijing's crackdown on lavish purchases of non-strategic assets by mainland big spenders is making the notion less likely.

It will be impossible to know who it was until the painting resurfaces at another time, another place.

Will the circa 1500 painting appear in the Louvre Abu Dhabi that was inaugurated this month by French President Emmanuel Macron and the oil-rich royalty there? That's the hunch, but only when it happens will it be confirmed.

It would be nice if the portrait ends up in a museum for the public to see rather than having it locked up and reserved for private viewing only.

After the collection market came down a bit following the financial tsunamis and Beijing's vigorous clampdown on corruption in recent years, it's always tempting to define a whopping record as a pointer of this or that.

The current case would be too exceptional to be a general indicator.

The oil on walnut painting depicts Christ as Salvator Mundi (Latin for saviour of the world). It shows Jesus, in Renaissance garb, giving a benediction with his raised right hand and crossed fingers, while holding a transparent crystal orb in his left hand.

Even after the sale, the work remains controversial, as the art world is divided into two camps. The original had been lost, rediscovered, restored, and certified by several leading scholars to be an original work by da Vinci.

But the other side remains as skeptical as before, pointing to its "simultaneously new and old" features.

No matter what, the hammer came down and money changed hands, and as a new record is set, so is the faith in authenticity.

We don't know if the painting will land in Abu Dhabi as speculated. If it does, it would certainly become the centerpiece of the "Louvre of the Arab world" - like the Mona Lisa that lures millions of visitors annually to the Louvre in Paris.

Nevertheless, one thing is certain. Wherever Salvator Mundi is heading, Christie's is set to pocket US$50 million in fees. No wonder the auction room was brimming with smiles.

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