In recent art world news, following strong sales in 2017, the international auction houses are said to be “feeling bullish” once again.  Last Friday, Christie’s announced that it had sold about £5.1 billion or $7.3 billion of art and collectibles worldwide (up 26 percent from 2016) in 2017.  Phillips saw a similar improvement over 2016 sales with auction and private sales of $708.8 million (up 25 percent from 2016) in 2017.  As both auction houses are privately held, neither one disclosed a profit or loss.  Publicly traded Sotheby’s will disclose its financial results for 2017 at month’s end.

The $450.3 million fetched in November for Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” helped propel Christie’s auction sales by 38 percent along with 65 lots that sold for more than £10 million.  Many of the auction house’s lots were supported by financial guarantees.  The strong sales signify that the art market is surging.

Auction houses among the likes of Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips have high overheads with business models that haven’t changed much since the 18th-century.  A primary challenge is that they keep up with the upward trajectory growth of global wealth and earn money from it.  Each auction house has its own unique strategy in doing so.

In particular, Phillips’ key selling category is 20th-century and contemporary art that raised $421.8 million at auction last year (or 60 percent of the annual total).  Phillips complements its art auctions with sales of 20th– and 21st-century design, photography and prints, and generates further revenue by sales of watches and jewelry.  Phillips has held just two online-only auctions in collaboration with Artsy last year.

In contrast, Christie’s attracts new buyers through its own well-established program of online-only auctions.  Last year, Christie’s held 85 digital sales of luxury goods and lower-value collectibles fetching £55.9 million or about $80 million.  Although this accounted for only one percent of annual total sales, it represented 37 percent of the auction house’s new buyers.

Last December, Sotheby’s announced that it had sold $4.7 billion of art and collectibles at auction in 2017 (up 13.1 percent from 2016).  While this was below Christie’s auction sales of $6.6 billion, Sotheby’s has diversified into other areas, including financial services, art advice and managing artist estates, and image recognition technology.  Sotheby’s upcoming financial results for 2017 will disclose the amount of its revenue derived from such 21st-century business models.

But for the moment, the 18th-century model of live auctions continues to do nicely [for the auction houses], tracking global economic growth.”

It remains to be seen as to how technology is going to change things, but it would seem that it could streamline and add efficiency to the art buying process and attract a greater reach of new buyers, particularly the future generation of art buyers and collectors.

 

Some in the art world may not know that the 500-year old masterpiece painting Salvator Mundi (“Savior of the World”) by Leonardo da Vinci that recently sold for nearly half a billion dollars is imperfect.  The work with a shady history was damaged and heavily repainted and then restored.  At least one well regarded Leonardo da Vinci expert went on record stating that he doesn’t believe the acclaimed artist was the primary artist behind the work.  The painting was owned by King Charles I in the 17th century, disappeared from records from 1763 to 1900, resurfaced again in 1958, and sold for under $10,000 in 2005.  Less than 10 years later, Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev brought the work to the market after purchasing it for $127.5 million in 2013.

Before the recent November 15, 2017 sale of the painting at Christie’s in New York, it was reported that Nica Rieppi, Principal Investigator at Art Analysis & Research, and her scientific team spent four years using the latest technology and a number of art books in authenticating the da Vinci work.  The painting was meticulously analyzed down to a microscopic level in which the team took miniscule samples to determine the pigments, materials and techniques used in creating it.  Technical imaging with x-rays, infrared and ultraviolet technology was also used by the team to assess how the painting developed with each stroke.

According to Rieppi, science is becoming more important than ever in the growing “high-stakes world of multimillion-dollar fine art sales” and the purpose is to “get inside the head of the artist.”

The masterpiece painting is a depiction of Christ draped in a blue robe holding one hand in prayer and a crystal sphere in the other and is said to be one of less than 20 paintings known to be created by the Italian master.

A significant clue in establishing the authenticity of the work derived from the composition of the paint.  The scientific team, through microscopic sampling, detected the use of lapis lazuli, a very rare pigment considered more expensive than gold in Italy at the time, in “extraordinarily high quality” throughout the blue in Christ’s robe in the painting.  The pigment was imported from the Middle East and the material was “so expensive and only available to someone of a master and stature as Leonardo,” explained Rieppi.

A further clue as to the authenticity of the work was the use of complex and sophisticated layering by the artist.  Through the use of a powerful microscope, the scientific team discovered monochromatic layers that were applied to the canvas before the addition of the pigment.  This included the use of a warm brown color on Christ’s robe along with transparent washes throughout the painting.  Such details are said to be consistent with da Vinci’s technique in the unfinished work The Adoration of Magi.  Rieppi believes there is no doubt that anyone other than da Vinci could have created the work due to the uniqueness of the painting at a microscopic level.

The complex history of the painting left many in the art world perplexed as to its provenance with some outright doubtful.  In particular, Jacques Frank, an art historian and da Vinci specialist who had examined the work, said to the media that “[t]he composition doesn’t come from Leonardo. He preferred twisted movement. It’s a good studio work with a little Leonardo at best, and it’s very damaged.”

At the outset of authenticating the work, Rieppi and her scientific team approached the project with “doubt and skepticism” in view of the questionable history of the painting.  However, the materials lined up and the techniques aligned to a point in which it became clear to Rieppi and her team about the origin and identity of the da Vinci masterpiece.

As for where Rieppi sees things heading in the art market, the authenticator believes that “[s]cience is allowing us to move toward evidence-based connoisseurship.”

 

 

 

 

In recent art world news, a painting by Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi (circa 1500) sold for $450.3 million on Wednesday evening at Christie’s postwar and contemporary art auction.  The sale of the rare masterpiece painting made history as the most expensive art market transaction of all time.  The work is believed to be the last painting by the renowned Renaissance artist in private hands.  Alex Rotter, Christie’s co-chairman of postwar and contemporary art for the Americas, represented the unidentified winning bidder on the phone after a nearly 20-minute bidding session that included five bidders (four on the phone and one in the room).

The previous highest art market transaction was recorded back in 2015 with the $300 million sale of Willem de Kooning’s Interchange (1955) purchased by Kenneth Griffin from David Geffen.

The Leonardo da Vinci lot accounted for more than half of the total sales at the evening auction, which came to an impressive $788.9 million.  The auction had a “respectable” sell-through rate of 84 percent.

After Wednesday evening’s history making sale at Christie’s, this begs the question from the art world as to whether there is no longer a ceiling in the sale of valuable works of art.  For thoughtful commentary on this, see “After Leonardo’s Sky-High Sale, the Art World Asks, Is There Still a Ceiling?” published online by the New York Times on November 16, 2017.