When I told my eight-year-old son that someone had bought a painting for $450-million (U.S.), making it the most expensive sale of a painting ever, he didn't know what those numbers meant, so he asked, "What was the most expensive thing ever bought in the world?"
I didn't know, because it depends on what you define as a thing. An island? an entire nation? The gross domestic product of Tonga was $435-million in 2016, but you probably can't buy Tonga. I don't know, but it did occur to me that this eight-year-old's question was probably extremely close to explaining the motivation of the unknown buyer of Salvator Mundi. The buyer was asking the same question. What was the most expensive thing he could buy? And he wanted to prove that he could buy it. An auction is a competition, and in winning it he defeated his rivals who are now known to have less superfluous money than he has.
What this means is that the proud new owner of a pretty 16th-century religious painting does not care about any of the intricate debates now raging among art historians about its authenticity. He does not care if it may have been largely executed by Leonardo's assistants, does not care that the surface has been abraded and that the wood is "worm-tunneled;" he does not care if Leonardo was unlikely to have painted a face head-on or that he was unlikely to have painted a crystal globe in so unscientific a manner; he does not even care that the painting was once sold for €45 ($75) or that the estimates that Christie's auction house assigned it were inflated by a slick and crass marketing campaign that included images of celebrities pining for the painting. The painting's value is not $450-million because it is a genuine Leonardo; it is worth that because he paid that much for it.
Its value as a pretty painting has never been in doubt: it is gorgeous. So gorgeous it should be on display for all to see, so that we, too, can see what the historians argue about when they talk about sfumato and perspective. Funnily enough, to the art critics, the question of exactly who painted it is also not terribly important. What's in it and what it looks like are important. Art critic Blake Gopnik (formerly of this paper) expressed the critic's area of interest exactly when he was interviewed by the online magazine Marketplace just before the auction. He said that asking whether the painting was "by Leonardo" is like asking, "Is the moon Jewish or is the sun gay?" His point is that contemporary notions of authorship don't apply to paintings that were always made with the help of assistants. Gopnik says, "I think it's way more interesting to say, you know, 'This is a funny, interesting picture that might be by Leonardo.' It's Leonard-ish, is what I'd say."
Gopnik also likes to point out that great works of art are not magic objects; we don't have to speak in hushed tones as if in front of an altar before them. In a recent column he expressed much admiration for Andy Warhol's Sixty Last Suppers – a canvas silkscreened with multiple reproductions of Leonardo's famous painting of the same name – because its repetition banalizes the image, undoes "the sacral role" that masterpieces are supposed to play for us.
Dashing his hopes for banality, however, the Warhol sold at the same evening at Christie's for $60.9-million.
And now, of course, Salvator Mundi has taken on another sacred mystery. It is not magic for being beautiful or Leonardish; it is magic for being so meaninglessly expensive. This is another blow to any normalization of art as part of everyday culture.
It is likely that someone who can spend this money on an object is actually a head of state of a feudal nation, because their people's assets are their own personal plunder. A medieval kind of competition is going on here; the insane competition of the tyrant in the fairy tale, the kind of tyrant who demands all the virgins be brought to the palace or all the redheads be banished. Anyone who pays $450-million for an object is immoral.