The Art of Marketing: Christie's and the "Holy Grail"

In one room, for nineteen minutes, five bidders crossed swords –

The fight surrounded the momentous sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi,” which sold on Wednesday night for an eye-watering $450.3 million, pulverising the high for any piece of artwork sold at auction. It eclipsed the sale of Picasso’s “Woman of Algiers,” which was sold for $179.4 million at Christie’s back in May 2015, and far surpassed Sotheby’s record-smashing auction of “Untitled” by Basquiat which sold for $110.5 million not long ago.

The auction of “Salvator Mundi” was punctuated by sporadic gasps from the crowd, as bids continued to soar by tens of millions. As the bidding began to lose steam, and buyers began to gird their proverbial loins for the next multi-million-dollar increase, Jussi Pylkkanen, the auctioneer poignantly commented, “It’s a historic moment; we’ll wait.”

The staggering price is even more extraordinary when the current market for the Old Masters is declining, due in large part to short supply and the modern collector possessing a proclivity towards contemporary art. Audaciously and with utter sincerity, “Salvator Mundi” was sold alongside Basquiat and Warhol in a Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, rather than at the less sexy Annual Old Masters Sale. To the observer, this painting affirms something else entirely – the extent of which skilled marketing and salesmanship has come to command the conversation around art and its subsequent worth.

Christie’s marketing campaign was reasonably idiosyncratic in the art world; it was the first time the celebrated auction house enlisted the support of an outside agency to execute a campaign for the work. The successful content marketing hailed the work as “the last da Vinci,” the only known painting by the Renaissance master still in private hands, despite numerous art critics who have pointed to the painting’s extensive damage and uncertain authenticity.

You have to hand it to Christie’s for its masterstroke in the art of marketing – succeeding in creating a mystique, a near cult of personality surrounding the curious and stirring work, despite numerous objections across the art world. 

Droga5, the digitally native ad agency, created a dazzling humanist spot in the lead up to the sale – The hook? The long-lost painting wasn’t shown at all. Instead, working alongside portrait photographer Nadav Kander, a hidden camera captured the visceral and emotional reactions to the painting – and they’re pretty damn captivating to watch (especially when Leonardo DiCaprio makes an appearance, swoon.) This postmodern turning-the-tables is a masterful dichotomy of digital exegesis and the private ‘self.’

Many artwork consultants (naysayers) contend with this new wave of art-marketing, arguing that Christie’s used through-the-line window dressing to hide the baggage that comes with a long-lost Leonardo, from the extent of damage and questionable authenticity to its perplexing buying history. Objections aside, this was a thumping good success of branding and fascination versus connoisseurship and staunch reality.

“It’s been a brilliant marketing campaign,” noted Alan Hobart, the director of Pyms Gallery in London and distinguished art dealer, “This is going to be the future.”

We agree, Mr. Hobart.