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David Hockney: “Portrait of an Artist (Swimming Pool with Two Figures)” (1972)

How much is too much to pay for a 500-year-old painting by Leonardo da Vinci? How about nearly half a billion dollars? Does that sound credible to you?

And $90 million for a painting by David Hockney, a living artist? These prices are correct on both accounts, and their sales occurred in a span of a little over one year. So, this question is warranted: What makes a few paintings mega-expensive?

These two record-breaking paintings are “Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World” (c.1500) by da Vinci, sold in late 2017 for $450 million; the other one is David Hockney’s “Portrait of an Artist (Swimming Pool with Two Figures)” (1972), sold in November for $90 million.

Pricing paintings has followed an evolution. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, paintings were individually commissioned in a system called patronage, ordered by a patron (mostly the Roman Catholic Church) from an artist. By the 18th century, Sotheby’s and Christie’s Auction Houses were opened in England, and the free art market was an international reality.

The global art market value in 2017 was $63.7 billion, according to the European Fine Arts Foundation. There are a few factors — objective and subjective — that determine painting prices: the reputation of the artist followed by the marketability of his work and provenance, that is, to whom did it belong before?

Another factor is attribution that occurs when a painting by an anonymous artist is attributed to a true Old Master. Price of artworks is also determined in auctions by competing billionaires who want them for their personal collections. Finally, exposure of a particular painter and paintings — such as major retrospective exhibition, and even online coverage — increases their value.

The top position in the 10 most expensive paintings ever sold varies from time to time, but lately, the artists are consistently male New Masters, those who lived after 1800. In the current list they are: Willem de Kooning, Paul Gauguin, Jackson Pollock (twice), Mark Rothko, Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani. Before that date, they are considered Old Masters, namely da Vinci and Rembrandt.

Two paintings, two records, two opposed fortunes. David Hockey’s (b.1937) “Portrait of an Artist” (a 1972 acrylic on canvas, 84 x 120 inches) depicts two male figures, one on an edge of a swimming pool and the other swimming in it. Even though it was painted in England, it has the ambiance of Hockney’s sun-soaked Southern California works. It appears on Hockey’s Wikipedia page and was recently seen in an extremely successful retrospective of the painter’s works at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was sold by a private collector to an unknown art purchaser, and therefore, is for their eyes only.

Hockney’s achievement notwithstanding, da Vinci (1471-1528) stole the spotlight — by far. His “Salvator Mundi” (oil on walnut, 25.8 x 19.2 inches) sold for an astonishing $450 million in 2017. The portrait depicts Christ holding one hand in prayer and a crystal sphere in the other, while draped in a blue robe. Painted in 1500, the work was owned by a series of collectors and non-collectors alike before landing at the Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2017. The museum opened in November 2017 and just reached a milestone: 1 million visitors in the past 12 months.

After a meticulous restoration, the team of scientists who worked on the painting affirms that “Salvator Mundi” is an original da Vinci painting. However, others believe that the composition does not come from that painter; they even claim that it’s a good studio work with a little Leonardo at best.

We inquired from the Louvre Abu Dhabi when the painting will be finally shown, after several postponements, and received an email dated Nov. 14, that “The ‘Salvator Mundi’ unveiling has been postponed.”

There are a variety of hypotheses, maybe better called “conspiracy theories,” as to why the Louvre Abu Dhabi has not unveiled its mega-expensive crown jewel. Some art magazines and other media refer to the painting as only “(Attributed to) Leonardo da Vinci.” Maybe the Emir of Abu Dhabi had a change of heart and decided that Christ is not suitable for a Muslim country (even though they consider Jesus a prophet of Islam). Did it need further cleaning, as the museum recently claimed? Anything else? Or they realized, after the fact. that they have invested almost half a billion dollars in a dud? Stay tuned.

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