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Christie’s Top Auctioneer on Selling Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi’

On Wednesday, Christie’s will auction Salvator Mundi, the last painting by Leonardo da Vinci still in private hands.


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On Wednesday in New York, Jussi Pylkkanen, Global President of Christie’s, will auction Salvator Mundi, the last painting by Leonardo da Vinci still in private hands. The pre-sale estimate is $100 million, a record for an Old Master painting sold at auction.

Christie’s has taken the unusual step of selling the painting in its Postwar and Contemporary sale. In the weeks leading up to the event, it has toured the world alongside Andy Warhol’s massive silkscreen Sixty Last Suppers, which the auction house is presenting as the evening’s undercard. Though there is an obvious connection between the works (Warhol’s canvas consists of a grid of sixty reproductions of da Vinci’s iconic mural The Last Supper), this unorthodox move is seemingly designed to drum up interest in the sale. In recent years, some in the art world have remarked upon “the Pylkkanen touch,” a mix of historical scholarship and bravura showmanship. We asked the Finnish-born Pylkkanen, who will be wielding the hammer on Wednesday, about this latest example.

Why is Leonardo’s work being offered in a post-war-and-contemporary auction?

For me it’s not about the sale but the work, a timeless masterpiece by the genius da Vinci, offered alongside the magnificent Warhol Sixty Last Suppers. This work and the artist transcend all collecting categories. Any serious collector would long for it, regardless of their preferred era or medium.

Twentieth Century Week in New York is always one of our most prominent sale events for top collectors from around the world, so this is an ideal time to offer such an unprecedented masterpiece to these clients. All of our specialist departments involved in the decision agreed that the flagship contemporary evening sale in New York would provide the right moment to present this work.

What makes Leonardo, or this work, modern?

Leonardo is the rare artist where everything he created stands outside time or category. His artistic work and his legacy is admired the world over, and has been studied closely for centuries. Over the last four weeks, since we announced the sale, Salvator Mundi has been visited and seen by more than 20,000 people. You only have to see the awed faces of those who came to any one of these exhibitions—in San Francisco, London, Hong Kong or New York—to recognize how deeply this picture affected people, wherever they travelled from to see it. Creating these conversations is one of the most interesting and important aspects of our job at Christie’s, where we believe passionately that the arts and objects of the past are so relevant to society today.

Photographer Nadav Kander films awed reactions to Salvator Mundi. Keep an eye out for Patti Smith and Leonardo Di Caprio.

It has been presented, pre-sale, alongside Sixty Last Suppers by Andy Warhol. Why?

We couldn’t resist the chance to show Salvator Mundi and Warhol’s Sixty Last Suppers side by side. We thought it sparked a dialogue between two of the world's most iconic artists born centuries apart and demonstrates the enduring relevance of Leonardo's work.

Is this the first Leonardo you’ve auctioned?

[Laughs.] It is every auctioneer's dream to do so, but no I’ve never sold a work by Leonardo da Vinci before. Given how few known paintings by the artist there are in existence [Editor’s note: around 15] it’s likely the only chance I will ever have. It will be the pinnacle of my auctioneering career so far, and an opportunity to set Leonardo alongside Bacon, Giacometti, Modigliani, and Picasso as the four other geniuses whose paintings have sold for a hammer price over $100 million figure, a kind of magic figure. We estimate that it will also be a first for an Old Master painting—another ambition for any auctioneer. Christie’s has handled drawings by Leonardo, which he produced in greater volume than paintings and frescoes. This particular painting, Salvator Mundi, was previously sold by Sotheby’s in 1958 for £45 when it was still obscured by over-painting. There are no direct comparisons for a work by this artist and of this art-historical significance. Our estimate is considerably higher than any Old Masters painting previously sold at auction.

What is the significance of this Leonardo work in particular?

This work is arguably the greatest artistic rediscovery of the 21st century and one of fewer than twenty paintings by the artist known to exist. It was first recorded in the collection of Charles I but dates from around 1500, and shows the half-figure of Christ as “savior of the world.” After many years, the work emerged in 2005 and was then dramatically unveiled in 2011 in London at the National Gallery, causing a sensation. This is a true masterpiece and a great rarity with a remarkable history.

Quite apart from any numbers, what is your estimation of this work?

Whatever else is happening in the world, a Monet is a Monet, a Van Gogh is forever a Van Gogh, and a Leonardo will always be a Leonardo, and one of the most impossible masterpieces in the world to find. Rarity and quality drive value in any market.

How would you characterize the interplay of expertise, understanding the buyer’s mentality and becoming an auctioneer? Does one blend into the other? Are these related skills?

I think the best auctioneers know the artworks that they’re selling well. And also have a relationship with the people who collect. Having said that, there are good auctioneers who are adept at managing a room, but to do it well it goes far beyond that. It’s like great conductors. There are people who have played, and who understand music beautifully, and who mentor the musicians. We have very strong relationships with the collectors. We help them buy things, we show them things, we sell things to them privately, we give them advice, we help to build their collection.

When you auction off works of this importance, what is your attitude? Nervous? Relaxed?

I think relaxed. You learn to be relaxed. You learn to be in control of your emotions. You know that there will be disappointments and things that don’t make the prices that they might do, or things that fly, and you have to be measured. I’m known, actually, for being measured at Christie’s. I don’t quite know how that’s come about. A steady hand is quite important. There’s a huge amount of energy. You do have a massive amount of adrenalin.

Remember, you are standing up in front of 800 people in the audience. You are standing in front of TV cameras. If you have a TV interview, you behave differently. You are sort of conscious that the world is watching. And you have to become slightly un-self conscious, and slightly self-deprecating as well about it. Afterwards I feel quite drained. And often a little bit gloomy. All the positive energy that comes in… something comes back into there that isn’t the same juice. [Laughs.] And I often disappear. I don’t often don’t go out with everybody that’s been involved in a sale afterwards.

Editor's Note: The above text has been condensed from two separate interviews.


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