Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

$450 Million? Yes, but Think of What the 'Mona Lisa' Has Done for the Louvre

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

$450 Million? Yes, but Think of What the 'Mona Lisa' Has Done for the Louvre

Article excerpt

Each time a painting sells for countless millions, it's hugely tempting to discuss billionaires' whims and starving artists. But the $450 million paid by an anonymous buyer for "Salvator Mundi," attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, is a different story. It's a testament to the true value of great art.

"Salvator Mundi," the portrait of Christ that Leonardo supposedly painted around 1500, likely for King Louis XII of France, does have something of a history as a billionaire's investment.

The seller, Dmitry Rybolovlev, made his $10 billion fortune in potash, sold his Russian companies and invested a large part of the proceeds in an art collection valued by Bloomberg Billionaires at $2 billion. Since 2015, Mr. Rybolovlev has been suing Yves Bouvier, his Swiss art dealer, for allegedly overcharging him by $500 million to $1 billion as he built the collection. He also has been selling off the art.

Mr. Rybolovlev acquired "Salvator Mundi" from Mr. Bouvier for $127 million (substantially more than the $75 million to $80 million Mr. Bouvier paid for it), so, given Christie's share of the final price, he made a profit of $273 million - enough to recoup up to half of what he says Mr. Bouvier owes him.

Why could the painting be worth so much more to the owner who bought it yesterday than to Mr. Rybolovlev, when he acquired it in 2013?

When Mr. Rybolovlev bought it, it had already been generally accepted as a work of Leonardo's and put on display in London's National Gallery. One possible answer is that the potash billionaire kept it, like other works he'd acquired, in freeports - huge warehouses built for art in low-tax regions. "Salvator Mundi," however, has the potential to be another "Mona Lisa," sparking speculation that a museum may have acquired it rather than a private collector. One can only hope.

The "Mona Lisa" has made the reputation of the Louvre as a superstar museum, the third most visited in the world. It's the only painting there to which there's a direct path from the entrance and the only one people line up to see and photograph. Many of those visitors are disappointed, of course: The painting isn't large, it sits behind thick glass and a cordon prevents up-close inspection by viewers. But its phenomenon is much broader than what can actually be seen at the Louvre.

The "Mona Lisa" became the prime jewel of the Paris museum collection, ahead of previously higher-valued works by Raphael and Titian, when it was stolen in 1911 and the French newspapers whipped up a frenzy about its loss so that people waited in line to see the empty spot on the wall where it had hung.

And it has been a reliable generator of stories ever since - about it being Leonardo's self-portrait, the symbolism behind it, most recently about it and a copy owned by the Prado museum in Madrid possibly conceived as parts of the first stereoscopic image in history. …

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