The recent record-breaking sale of “Salvator Mundi” highlighted two things – one a surprise, and the other not. The surprise was that this is the most expensive painting by Leonardo DiCaprio that has ever been sold. I kid you not: that’s what the announcer on BBC’s breakfast news sofa said. The not-surprise is that the sale has demonstrated, once again, how easy it is to move enormous – breath-taking, gargantuan – sums of money through the art sector without giving too many of your details. You know, tricky stuff like where you got the money.
We don’t know who bought the (to my eye, rather creepy) portrait of Jesus for US$450,312,500, although we assume that Christie’s, the auction house running the sale, has some idea. We do know that the seller was the family trust of Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, who bought “Salvator Mundi” in 2013 for US$127.5 million from Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier. Rybolovlev and Bouvier have history: the Russian previously claimed that the Frenchman had overcharged him for various pieces of art, although this latest profit somewhat undermines his case… And Rybolovlev is a rather unexpected champion of transparency. In 2015 Yves Bouvier consigned for sale at Sotheby’s in London a painting by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec called “Au Lit: Le Baiser”. He signed the standard paperwork which requires the consignor to indicate that he owns the piece or is authorised to sell it. And after the sale – the painting made £10.8 million – the money was handed to Bouvier. However, the real owner was – you’ve guessed it – Dmitry Rybolovlev, who says that he authorised the sale but that Sotheby’s should have checked who the real owner was before turning over the money. His lawyer Tetiana Bersheda was flabbergasted: “It is extraordinary that such a rare and high-value work could have been sold at auction without the auction house knowing the identity of the true owner.”
Perhaps the “Salvator Mundi” profit of $322,812,500 will mollify Mr Rybolovlev and soothe his relationship with Mr Bouvier. But whatever happens between those two gentlemen, repeated calls for more transparency in the art market – when such enormous sums are at stake – must surely begin to bear fruit.