Lessons on Authenticating Fine Art from the $100M Salvator Mundi Sale

Authenticating Fine Art - salvator mundi
Source: Newsweek

The artist Jonathan Yeo tweeted recently that the rediscovered Leonardo da Vinci painting ‘Salvator Mundi’ or the saviour of the world, which is being offered for sale by Christie’s on November the 15th, with an estimate of $100 Million was a bargain! And there is a solid argument that it is. There are only around 20 paintings that are definitively by Leonardo and this is the only one that is available for purchase at any price. The others are all in museums and cannot be sold. By investigating the history of this piece and similar fine artworks from this period, the importance of authenticating fine art becomes clear.

Authenticating Fine Art - Vermeer
Source: Essential Vermeer

In 2004, a painting by Johannes Vermeer titled ‘a young woman seated at the virginals’ (a sort of piano) sold at Sotheby’s London for a record £16.2 million including fees (around $30 million at the time). The work, which had been regarded as a fake for many years, had been initially offered with a cautious estimate of £3 million. Even up until the gavel went down, many questioned its attribution, as the work was deemed too poor to be by Vermeer.

Sotheby’s promoted the work, with a 22-page catalogue, which included contributions from art historians, costume historians, conservators and scientific analysts. They all sought to reinforce the conclusion reached by a panel of Dutch museum experts that the work was by Vermeer. In the art world, authenticating fine art is decided by a committee of experts who have the right to validate works by a certain artist. If this committee do not authenticate a work, as far as the art market is concerned, it is not authentic.

With the ever-increasing prices paid by collectors for authentic works by Contemporary, Modern and Old Masters, buyers want to be sure their work is correct and will pay significantly less for unauthenticated works, if they are willing to purchase them at all. There are many paintings that are most likely correct, but that cannot be sold as such as their chain of provenance is incomplete, or there is something about the composition or style of the work the specialists do not like. And hence have not been authenticated.

There have also been instances where committees authenticating fine art have been accused of deliberately and systematically refusing to authenticate works to limit the supply of works to the market and thus drive up the value of their holdings. It is these factors, that make the authenticity of both the Vermeer and the da Vinci so important. As, with this solid attribution, these works represent a once in a generation opportunity to buy works by these titans of art history.

The last Vermeer that one could buy before ‘a young woman seated at the virginals, was 49 years ago, and the last work offered at auction 81 years ago. The only other one technically in private hands belongs to the Queen of England: and, short of a revolution that will never be sold!

Authenticating Fine Art - Rembrandt
Source: Rijksmuseum

A drawing by da Vinci sold in 2001 for the staggering sum of £8,143,750. This was one of the finest da VincI drawings still in private hands: Though crucially not the ONLY one in private hands. A more accurate barometer of the current prices paid for work by the finest Old Master painters is the pair of portraits by Rembrandt van Rijn of Marten Soolmans and his wife Oopjen Coppit, executed a year after their wedding in 1634, which were purchased by the Rijksmuseum and the Louvre in collaboration for a staggering €160 million (around $182 million).

The fact that this price could only be achieved by 2 international instructions and indeed nations joining forces, illustrates how expensive Old Masters works can be. As a pair of works of exceptional quality, they were unique, but not the only opportunity to buy a Rembrandt at the time. Also, the fact that the works were offered for private sale, rather than being put on an auction block is also key: as offering works privately allows the buyers a longer period to raise funds prior to the sale. These deals can be worked out over a period of years, while the buyer of the da Vinci will have just over a month to get their funds together.

Authenticating Fine Art - Rubens
Source: BBC Arts

An example of an Old Master painting, which has been sold at auction, of similar quality to the da Vinci and the Rembrandt is Rubens ‘massacre of the Innocents’ which sold in 2002 at Sotheby’s in London for £49.5 million including fees (around $76.7 million). This work, painted between 1609 and 1611, not only represents a large-scale work by the artist, but is a major masterpiece by Rubens. Rubens is not an artist whose work only comes up only once in a generation, but a work of this importance and scale, may never come up again.

Does the price of $76.7 million paid for the Rubens mean buyers are unwilling to bid a lot more for old master paintings and hence value Old Master paintings less highly than Modern and Contemporary Art? Buyers of Modern and Contemporary masterpieces often pay more than the $100 million Christie’s have put on the da Vinci. It is perhaps for this reason Christie’s have taken the odd step of offering the da Vinci their major Post War and Contemporary art sale. Seeking to promote the painting as a once in a lifetime event which transcends time and genres. High praise indeed, but if there is an artist who deserves such hype it is da Vinci. Whether or not this risky positioning of the painting will pay off, only time will tell. As with any auction if 2 or more bidders want a work badly enough and are prepared to keep bidding, then the sky is the limit.


About the Author

Huw is an experienced art storage and shipping professional with an art history background.


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