The Face of Art and Beyond

The recent record-breaking auction of Salvator Mundi has put art firmly in the spotlight as it continues to ascend the Knight Frank Luxury Investment Index.

By Sophia King

The two most expensive works of art to sell in 2017 – Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled and Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi – both present paintings of faces, but that is where the obvious similarities end.

One gazes at you from the canvas with benign serenity, the other grimaces at the viewer with tortured malevolence.

One was painted more than 500 years ago, the other a relatively recent product of the 1980s. One was (allegedly) created by the greatest Old Master and technically gifted of artists, the other by an underground graffiti artist turned painter and star of New York’s 1980s art scene.

But, despite the vast expanse of time and circumstance dividing the two artworks, both have attracted vast amounts of attention – and cash.


Leonardo da Vinci, the ‘Old Master’

Thought to have been owned by at least three Kings of England, Salvator Mundi has an impressive history that its new buyer is no doubt pleased to become a part of.

While Untitled shares no such majestic legacy, it does offer a deeply compelling insight into 1980s America and Basquiat himself.


Jean Michel-Basquiat’s Untitled. Source: Sotheby’s New York, Contemporary Art Evening Auction,18 May 2017. © 2017 The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat / ADAGP, Paris / ARS

Its frenzied flurry of brush strokes combine to portray the dark racism and brutality hidden behind America’s smiling façade, and hints at Basquiat as a brilliant yet disturbed mind doomed to succumb to the encroaching darkness (he tragically died of a heroin overdose at just 27 years old).

Today, Basquiat is considered by many to be a heavyweight artist on par with, among other American greats, his mentor and friend Andy Warhol.

The notion of art as much more than a simple pleasure purchase is further emphasised by its popularity as an investment. According to the newly published results of the Knight Frank Luxury Investment Index (KFLLI), art is on course to be the top performing asset in 2017.

In the 12 months to the end of Q3, the value of art sold at auction had increased by 16%, as tracked by industry analyst Art Market Research. This ranks second only to wine, which has seen prices rise by 17%. But provisional data for October suggests that art is set to overtake wine by the end of the year.

It could be argued that the financial value of art has somewhat undermined its beauty, as grand masterpieces are safely locked away from any potential damage, hidden away from public sight for what can be, in some cases, centuries.

It’s clear that both artworks have their own unique allure, but it’s less clear precisely which elements were at the forefront of their respective buyers’ minds. Were they focussed on securing a piece of critically acclaimed art that they could spend endless hours studying in awe? Or are they simply savvy businessmen looking to make a smart investment? It’s hard to be sure, but the answer most likely sits somewhere between the two.

Japanese collector and online fashion mogul Yusaku Maezawa became the owner of Untitled earlier this year after placing a cool $110.5 million bid at a Sotheby’s auction, the highest price paid for a piece of American artwork.

Maezawa is a keen admirer of contemporary art; he is founder of the Contemporary Art Foundation and last year spent almost $100 million dollars in an art spending spree. A quick scroll through his Instagram feed reveals an individual looking to share his excited passion for art with others.

Untitled features often; from Maezawa’s announcement of his new ownership, to children’s own imitation drawings of the masterpiece. Of course, Maezawa’s healthy art collection undoubtedly contributes to his estimated $3.6 billion worth, but perhaps this is simply a convenient by-product of being a wealthy art enthusiast.

“While art continues to be an increasingly popular asset class, its performance can be unpredictable. “

When it comes to the record-breaking auction of Salvator Mundi for $450 million, the answers remain relatively unknown. The buyer of the piece is anonymous, reduced to an elusive figure at the end of a telephone clasped by the jubilant Christie’s agent pictured across the world’s press in November.

Speculation as to the identity of the buyer is rife, with most believing that it is someone from Asia or the Middle East; perhaps a signature piece for the newly opened Louvre Abu Dhabi. But, beyond speculation, there is little more to say – except, of course, that the new owner is undoubtedly one with immense funds.

While art continues to be an increasingly popular asset class, its performance can – as Salvator Mundi all too well shows – be unpredictable. The alleged Da Vinci painting was sold for just £45 in 1958 and, with some scholars still unconvinced by its provenance, there are likely to be further twists in its unfolding tale.

One thing, however, is indisputable: the anonymous buyer of Salvator Mundi is the owner of the world’s most expensive artwork. For now, at least.

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