By Alistair Farrow
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Art auction paints a picture of capitalism’s warped priorities

This article is over 4 years, 2 months old
Issue 2581
Salvator Mundi was sold for the highest price paid ever at auction
???????Salvator Mundi was sold for the highest price paid ever at auction (Pic: Gerard Van der Leun/Flickr)

Some £340 million for a painting by Leonardo da Vinci—and possibly a fake one at that—may seem a touch steep. But it’s a small price to pay for billionaires keen to hide away their cash.

The sale of Salvator Mundi, or Saviour of the World, marks the highest price paid at auction for any work of art.

The audience at the Christie’s auction house in New York gasped and cheered when the hammer came down, dealers patted each other on the back.

The spectacle underlines the sickness of a society where three men—Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Jeff Bezos—have as much personal wealth as the bottom half of the US population.

And the release of the Paradise Papers show the lengths the wealthy will go to stash their riches away.

It also raises questions for Marxists who see the value of commodities as determined by the amount of labour that goes into them—the labour theory of value.

The art market can seem at first glance to be a refutation of this theory. How can a painting, which took perhaps a week to make, have a price so far in excess of a commodity produced by a decorator in the same amount of time?


Workers take raw commodities—wood, pigment or flour—and turn them into something greater than the sum of their parts. This process creates surplus value and creates capitalists’ profits.

Marx argues that price is not the same as value. He describes the price of an object as concealing “either a direct or indirect real value-relation”.

He argues that abstract things such as conscience and honour can be attributed a price.

Auction house Christie’s went into overdrive creating a sense of spectacle and wonder around Salvator Mundi. Photographer Nadav Kander was recruited to create a promotional film of people gazing in awe at the piece of art—celebrities Leonardo DiCaprio and Patti Smith featured.

Christie’s described the film as showing the “divine moment of connection between this powerful, mysterious, enigmatic portrayal of Christ and those who have felt compelled to observe it.”

Creating the spectacle came down to one thing—bumping up the price. The £340 million price tag included almost £40 million in fees, the majority of which went to the auction house.

“This is going to be the future,” said director of the Pyms Gallery in London Alan Hobart about the marketing campaign.

The entire art market stand to benefit from the gross inflation of prices.


The president of Christie’s Jussi Pylkkänen has argued, “If you want a safe indicator of whether works were likely to elicit good competition in future, you’d look at works that had already been sold perhaps 15 years before, which generated a lot of interest and were in the top 20 of the artists’ works.”

That means people with more money to spend have a greater chance of a safe investment which will increase in value. The better known, and the longer the artist has been regarded as eminent, the higher the price of the artwork and the longer you can expect it to retain.

Francis Bacon’s Self Portrait (In Three Parts) is a good example—its price increased by 232 percent between 1999 and 2008.

Salvator Mundi—rightly or wrongly—is one of less than 20 paintings attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. Whoever owns it can fairly safely rely on its price at least remaining stable, if not increasing.

And the hype around its sale should certainly help that.

Markets can be rigged in favour of the rich. Prices can be increased by artificially creating scarcity, through stockpiling and so on. And the art market “is one of the most manipulated markets in the world,” according to Steve Kettle from wealth management firm Stonehage Fleming.

The deck is rigged in favour of those at the top. The only way out for the rest of us is by cutting the deck in our favour and throwing out the parasites.

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