“This was a thumping epic triumph of branding and desire over connoisseurship and reality,” said Todd Levin, a New York art adviser.
Christie’s marketing campaign was perhaps unprecedented in the art world; it was the first time the auction house went so far as to enlist an outside agency to advertise the work. Christie’s also released a video that included top executives pitching the painting to Hong Kong clients as “the holy grail of our business” and likening it to “the discovery of a new planet.” Christie’s called the work “the Last da Vinci,” the only known painting by the Renaissance master still in a private collection (some 15 others are in museums).
“It’s been a brilliant marketing campaign,” said Alan Hobart, director of the Pyms Gallery in London, who has acquired museum-quality artworks across a range of historical periods for the British businessman and collector Graham Kirkham. “This is going to be the future.”
There was a palpable air of anticipation at Christie’s Rockefeller Center headquarters as the art market’s major players filed into the sales room. The capacity crowd included top dealers like Larry Gagosian, David Zwirner and Marc Payot of Hauser & Wirth. Major collectors had traveled here for the sale, among them Eli Broad and Michael Ovitz from Los Angeles; Martin Margulies from Miami; and Stefan Edlis from Chicago. Christie’s had produced special red paddles for those bidding on the Leonardo, and many of its specialists taking bids on the phone wore elegant black.
Earlier, 27,000 people had lined up at pre-auction viewings in Hong Kong, London, San Francisco and New York to glimpse the painting of Christ as “Savior of the World.” Members of the public — indeed, even many cognoscenti — cared little if at all whether the painting might have been executed in part by studio assistants; whether Leonardo had actually made the work himself; or how much of the canvas had been repainted and restored. They just wanted to see a masterwork that dates from about 1500 and was rediscovered in 2005.
“There is extraordinary consensus it is by Leonardo,” said Nicholas Hall, the former co-chairman of old master paintings at Christie’s, who now runs his own Manhattan gallery. “This is the…