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Leonardo’s painting shows where ‘marketing circus’ now meets art world

Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi sold for $400-million US at Christie's on Nov. 15, 2017.

Julie Jacobson/AP

Here's a joke that's making the rounds in art circles this week:

Q: Why did Christie's put the Leonardo in a contemporary sale?

A: Because most of it was painted within the past decade.

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The joke – and it is a joke – follows the gasp-inducing purchase on Wednesday of Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi at Christie's postwar and contemporary sale (rather than an old masters sale) in New York. It went for $400-million (U.S.), $450.3-million with the premium – the highest price for an artwork sold at auction, in spite of questions about its condition and authenticity (thus the joke).

The auction triumph followed an aggressive marketing push by Christie's.

The painting was sent on a presale tour; thousands lined up for a turn with it. Slick videos were produced and posted online. There was international media coverage.

The investment paid off: The painting not only shattered records, but has triggered all manner of discussion in art circles – not all of it positive.

"They're shocked at the size of the purchase price," said David Silcox, former managing director of Sotheby's Canada. "Because it's really not based on anything other than greed and giving yourself a pat on the back for being as rich as you are."

But in terms of Salvator Mundi's hammer price as a harbinger for the larger auction market – a saviour of the art world, if you will (not that it needs saving at the moment) – that remains as clear as the question of how much of Leonardo's original work remains after major conservation efforts (in other words, not very – or, at least, disputed).

This fall, Christie's published a video called The Last Leonardo da Vinci. It has been viewed more than 100,000 times. "Suddenly, you're stopped in your tracks and it sucks you towards it," art critic Alastair Sooke says in the video. Another promotional video, The Last da Vinci: The World is Watching trains the camera on people's faces as they view the painting (including another famous Leonardo, DiCaprio), with Max Richter's On the Nature of Daylight as a dramatic soundtrack. It has more than 180,000 views.

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"I thought they did a very good job, obviously, but I also think they had a good story to work with," said Robert Heffel of Heffel Fine Art Auction House.

"It captured the people's imaginations," he said. "We're living in a new world of hyper media events, so why shouldn't culture be [part of that]? It's nice to see history and culture being appreciated on that scale."

Mr. Heffel was speaking from Toronto, where his company is holding a preview of works for Wednesday's live auction, including a Lawren Harris painting estimated at $2.5-million to $3.5-million.

Mr. Heffel's previews, also held in Vancouver and Montreal, attract thousands: potential buyers, as well as the merely curious (and appreciative).

"It enables you to really connect with people," Mr. Heffel said.

Previews are part of the drill in the art world, but Christie's efforts were next-level publicity. Not everyone approves.

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"While I hated the marketing circus at Christie's, I reluctantly concede that that's the way things are done at the moment," art dealer Christopher Varley wrote in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail. "It's just not healthy. If 'culture' is to flourish, we need to find better ways to distinguish between its 'signals' and all this 'noise.' "

The hype might be called a necessary evil when it comes to attracting that sort of money.

"I guess they have to do it; they're trying to get at the rich people to get their interest up and it seems to work," Mr. Silcox said.

"I'm not by nature a hustler, but it's interesting that, in fact, there's been a big push; the major auction houses – Christie's, Sotheby's, Phillips – have actually moved to the superrich; that's what they're really interested in. They do anything for the superrich, and they've left the real market, which is basically in the middle, sort of ignored to a large extent. It's certainly not getting the sort of attention it used to get."

Mr. Silcox, who is also an art historian, said just as he believes the Mona Lisa is not Leonardo's best painting at the Louvre even if it's the one people crowd in to see, the record-breaking Salvator Mundi is not Leonardo's best. And the impact of its sale on the wider market is unclear.

"I don't know whether the value will stay with some of these things," Mr. Silcox said.

"You put it back into the auction a year from now, I bet it wouldn't get the same amount of money. That's because it's sort of an artificial amount. It's the amount that somebody decided he or she wanted to pay. And that's all it is."

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