The painting ‘Salvator Mundi’ by Leonardo da Vinci at Christie’s

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After 19 minutes of dueling, with four bidders on the telephone and one in the room, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” sold on Wednesday night for $450.3 million with fees, shattering the high for any work of art sold at auction. It far surpassed Picasso’s “Women of Algiers,” which fetched $179.4 million at Christie’s in May 2015. The buyer was not immediately disclosed.

There were gasps throughout the sale, as the bids climbed by tens of millions up to $225 million, by fives up to $260 million, and then by twos. As the bidding slowed, and a buyer pondered the next multi-million-dollar increment, Jussi Pylkkanen, the auctioneer, said, “It’s an historic moment; we’ll wait.”

Toward the end, Alex Rotter, Christie’s co-chairman of postwar and contemporary art, who represented a buyer on the phone, made two big jumps to shake off one last rival bid from Francis de Poortere, Christie’s head of old master paintings.

The price is all the more remarkable at a time when the old masters market is contracting, because of limited supply and collectors’ penchant for contemporary art.

And to critics, the astronomical sale attests to something else — the degree to which salesmanship has come to drive and dominate the conversation about art and its value. Some art experts pointed to the painting’s damaged condition and its questionable authenticity.

“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 videothat 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 most important old master painting to have been sold at auction in my lifetime.”

That is the kind of name-brand appeal that Christie’s was presumably banking on by placing the painting in its high-profile contemporary art sale, rather than in its less sexy annual old master auction, where it technically belongs. To some extent, the auction house succeeded with the painting even before the sale, having secured a guaranteed $100 million bid from an unidentified third party. It is the 12th artwork to break the $100 million mark at auction, and a new high for any old master at auction, surpassing Rubens’s “Massacre of the Innocents,” which sold for $76.7 million in 2002 (or more than $105 million, adjusted for inflation).

But many art experts argue that Christie’s used marketing window dressing to mask the baggage that comes with the Leonardo, from its compromised condition to its complicated buying history and said that the auction house put the artwork in a contemporary sale to circumvent the scrutiny of old masters experts, many of whom have questioned the painting’s authenticity and condition.

“The composition doesn’t come from Leonardo,” said Jacques Franck, a Paris-based art historian and Leonardo specialist. “He preferred twisted movement. It’s a good studio work with a little Leonardo at best, and it’s very damaged.”

“It’s been called ‘the male Mona Lisa,’” he said, “but it doesn’t look like it at all.” Mr. Franck said he has examined the Mona Lisa out of its frame five times.

Luke Syson, curator of the 2011 National Gallery exhibition in London that featured the painting, said in his catalog essay that “the picture has suffered.” While both hands are well preserved, he said, the painting was “aggressively over cleaned,” resulting in abrasion of the whole surface, “especially in the face and hair of Christ.”

Christie’s maintains that it was upfront about the much-restored, damaged condition of the oil-on-panel, which shows Christ with his right hand raised in blessing and his left holding a crystal orb.

But Christie’s was also slow to release an official condition report and its authenticity warranty on the Leonardo runs out in five years, as it does on all lots bought at its auctions, according to the small print in the back of its sale catalog.

The auction house has also played down the painting’s volatile sales history.

The artwork has been the subject of legal disputes and amassed a price history that ranges from less than $10,000 in 2005, when it was spotted at an estate auction, to $200 million when it was first offered for sale by a consortium of three dealers in 2012. But no institution besides the Dallas Museum of Art, which in 2012 made an undisclosed offer on the painting, showed public interest in buying it. Finally, in 2013, Sotheby’s sold it privately for $80 million to Yves Bouvier, a Swiss art dealer and businessman. Soon afterward, he sold it for $127.5 million, to the family trust of the Russian billionaire collector Dmitry E. Rybolovlev. Mr. Rybolovlev’s family trust was the seller on Wednesday night.

There was speculation that Liu Yiqian, a Chinese billionaire and co-founder with his wife of the Long Museum in Shanghai, may have been among the bidders. In recent years, the former taxi-driver-turned-power collector has become known for his splashy, record-breaking art purchases, including an Amedeo Modigliani nude painting for $170.4 million at a Christie’s auction in 2015. But in a message sent to a reporter via WeChat, a Chinese messaging app, Mr. Liu said he was not among the bidders for the Leonardo.

On Thursday morning, soon after the final sale was announced, Mr. Liu posted a message on his WeChat social media feed. “Da Vinci’s Savior sold for 400 million USD, congratulations to the buyer,” he wrote. “Feeling kind of defeated right now.”

By ROBIN POGREBIN and SCOTT REYBURN

Biblical Zionism in Bezalel Art

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by Dalia Manor

SURPRISING AS IT MAY SOUND, the visual art that has developed in Jewish Palestine and in Israel has drawn its inspiration from the Bible only on a limited scale. In recent years, some biblical themes have been taken by artists as metaphor in response to events in contemporary life. 1 But, as a whole, the bible has been far less significant for Israeli art then one would expect, especially when comparing the field to literature. The art of Bezalel, whose school and workshops were established in Jerusalem in 1906, is a special case however. This article will discuss the role and meaning of the use of biblical themes in the art of this institution, the founding of which is commonly regarded as marking the beginning of Israeli art.

The works produced in the Bezalel School of Art and Crafts in Jerusalem during its first phase (1906-1929) are usually classified according to the material and technique employed in their making. In analyzing the objects, greater emphasis is given to questions of style, whereas the iconography is discussed in broad generalizations or linked with stylistic aspects. 2 Setting aside questions of style or function, however, the works produced at Bezalel reveal that biblical themes played a considerable part; but this is by no means obvious. With regards to activity in the field of Jewish art in Europe at the time of Bezalel's foundation, and the later developments in Jewish art in Eretz Yisrael since the 1920s, it seems fairly clear that the recurrence of biblical subjects in Bezalel art is in fact exceptional. Since the iconography of Bezalel has been very little explored, this phenomenon has been overlooked. 3 This is partly due to the nature of Bezalel products, which are classified as decorative art and handicrafts, and are thus traditionally discussed in terms of form and quality of execution, rather than in terms of subject matter. Since Bezalel was not merely an art school accompanied by workshops, but rather an organized enterprise that aimed at national and cultural goals, the study of the subject matter of its artistic products may offer a further insight into the purpose and meaning of these works and of the Bezalel project in general.

The analysis of the subject matter in Bezalel art is based on the most comprehensive survey so far of Bezalel works--the exhibition held at the Israel Museum in 1983 and its accompanying catalogue, 4 which shows that biblical themes are prominent in figurative works. With the exclusion of portraits, of all the figure representations, biblical figures comprise about half, and biblical themes exceed by far other historic and Jewish themes. Although the themes are varied and some occur only rarely, certain tendencies emerge in the choice of biblical subjects:

 

1. There is an emphasis on figures that represent leadership, heroism, and salvation; e.g., Moses, David, Samson, Judith and Esther.

 

2. There are numerous scenes of exile and redemption: by the waters of Babylon, the exodus from Egypt, the prophet Elijah who proclaims the redemption and prophecies of the last days, particularly those describing ideal peace. Especially prominent in this category is the image of the two spies carrying the cluster of grapes, thus expressing their view of the land of milk and honey. One may also add to this group images of Adam and Eve in Paradise.

 

3. There is a particular attraction to the use of romantic pastorals in "oriental" scenery--most often the meeting of Rebecca and Eliezer at the well, Jacob and Rachel, and the figure of Ruth. The ideal romantic love is of course depicted via the Song of Songs.

Generally speaking, no conflict, war, disaster or negative aspect of biblical life are depicted, with the exception of the selling of Joseph and the Expulsion from Eden, both of which are rare. Even the depiction of the Akedah (The Binding of Isaac) is rare. Also rare are themes that involve contact between humankind and the divine, such as meeting with angels..

The Architect of the Tabernacle

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In Ex. xxxi. 1-6, the chief architect of the Tabernacle. Elsewhere in the Bible the name occurs only in the genealogical lists of the Book of Chronicles, but according to cuneiform inscriptions a variant form of the same, "Ẓil-BêI," was borne by a king of Gaza who was a contemporary of Hezekiah and Manasseh. Apparently it means "in the shadow [protection] of El." Bezalel is described in the genealogical lists as the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah (I Chron. ii. 18, 19, 20, 50). He was said to be highly gifted as a workman, showing great skill and originality in engraving precious metals and stones and in wood-carving. He was also a master-workman, having many apprentices under him whom he instructed in the arts (Ex. xxxv. 30-35). According to the narrative in Exodus, he was definitely called and endowed to direct the construction of the tent of meeting and its sacred furniture, and also to prepare the priests' garments and the oil and incense required for the service.

—In Rabbinical Literature:

The rabbinical tradition relates that when God determined to appoint Bezalel architect of the desert Tabernacle, He asked Moses whether the choice were agreeable to him, and received the reply: "Lord, if he is acceptable to Thee, surely he must be so to me!" At God's command, however, the choice was referred to the people for approval and was indorsed by them. Moses thereupon commanded Bezalel to set about making the Tabernacle, the holy Ark, and the sacred utensils. It is to be noted, however, that Moses mentioned these in somewhat inverted order, putting the Tabernacle last (compare Ex. xxv. 10, xxvi. 1 et seq., with Ex. xxxi. 1-10). Bezalel sagely suggested to him that men usually build the house first and afterward provide the furnishings; but that, inasmuch as Moses had ordered the Tabernacle to be built last, there was probably some mistake and God's command must have run differently. Moses was so pleased with this acuteness that he complimented Bezalel by saying that, true to his name, he must have dwelt "in the very shadow of God" (Hebr., "beẓel El"). Compare also Philo, "Leg. Alleg." iii. 31.

Bezalel possessed such great wisdom that he could combine those letters of the alphabet with which heaven and earth were created; this being the meaning of the statement (Ex. xxxi. 3): "I have filled him . . . with wisdom and knowledge," which were the implements by means of which God created the world, as stated in Prov. iii. 19, 20 (Ber. 55a). By virtue of his profound wisdom, Bezalel succeeded in erecting a sanctuary which seemed a fit abiding-place for God, who is so exalted in time and space (Ex. R. xxxiv. 1; Num. R. xii. 3; Midr. Teh. xci.). The candlestick of the sanctuary was of so complicated a nature that Moses could not comprehend it, although God twice showed him a heavenly model; but when he described it to Bezalel, the latter understood immediately, and made it at once; whereupon Moses expressed his admiration for the quick wisdom of Bezalel, saying again that he must have been "in the shadow of God" (Hebr., "beẓel El") when the heavenly models were shown him (Num. R. xv. 10; compare Ex. R. 1. 2; Ber. l.c.). Bezalel is said to have been only thirteen years of age when he accomplished his great work (Sanh. 69b); he owed his wisdom to the merits of pious parents; his grandfather being Hur and his grandmother Miriam, he was thus a grand-nephew of Moses (Ex. R. xlviii. 3, 4). Compare Ark in Rabbinical Literature.