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Sale Of $450 Million Da Vinci Painting Serves As A Triumph Of Marketing

Nov 16, 2017
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Last night, someone spent the most money in history on a work of art at Christie's auction house in New York.

JUSSI PYLKKANEN: Four-hundred million.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

MCEVERS: An anonymous buyer spent more than $450 million when you factor in fees on a Leonardo da Vinci painting. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports that the sale was more than anything a triumph of marketing.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Good luck finding a critic who thinks this was a $450 million picture.

BLAKE GOPNIK: No picture is worth $450 million.

ULABY: Blake Gopnik says just for the sake of comparison, the last biggest art world sale was a Picasso that went for less than 200 million a couple years ago.

GOPNIK: It's obviously a ridiculous amount of money for any bauble to decorate a billionaire's house.

ULABY: The seller was a Russian billionaire. It remains to be seen if the mystery buyer will put this bauble in a house or a museum. Gopnik, who has a doctorate in Renaissance art history, says the painting, called "Salvator Mundi," shows Jesus looking exactly like he does in almost every other picture.

GOPNIK: He's got long, essentially golden locks. He's got a little forked beard. In one hand, he's got two fingers up in a blessing gesture.

ULABY: Gopnik likes the paintings (ph) more than other critics who've raised questions about its condition and authenticity. But the auction house, Christie's, was determined to sell the picture as the male "Mona Lisa."

GOPNIK: That's just hype. That's part of the auction house hype.

ULABY: Part of the hype around this picture included pre-auction exhibitions that drew tens of thousands of viewers. A video Christie's made for wealthy buyers showed people transfixed in front of the painting in ecstasy and awe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ULABY: And the auction house marketed it alongside the hottest contemporary artists like Andy Warhol. This sale, says Blake Gopnik, tells us nothing about art.

GOPNIK: All it tells us is that there was some idiot out there in the world who was willing to pay more for this painting than anyone else in the entire world thought it was worth.

ULABY: That is except for the other gazillionaires who failed to outbid the winner. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.