Mr. Parish was part of a consortium of owners — the others were Robert Simon, a specialist in old masters, and Warren Adelson, a high-end dealer in American art, both based in New York — who researched the painting and arranged its restoration by Dianne Dwyer Modestini, a conservator based at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University.
The foundation for its skyscraper of value was laid in 2011 when the “Salvator Mundi” was included in the 2011 Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery in London. Acknowledging the work’s “aggressively over-cleaned” and damaged condition, the show’s curator, Luke Syson, identified it as the long-lost original of a Leonardo painting from about 1500 recorded in the collection of Henrietta Maria, wife of King Charles I of England.
In May 2013, the painting, now validated by a prestigious museum, was sold for $80 million to Yves Bouvier, a Swiss businessman, in a private transaction brokered by Sotheby’s. Mr. Bouvier immediately sold the painting for $127.5 million to the Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, for whom he was acting as an art adviser. That deal and other spectacular markups charged by Mr. Bouvier have resulted in a protracted and as-yet-unresolved multijurisdictional suit between the two men. Lawyers have done quite nicely out of the “Salvator Mundi,” too.
Mr. Rybolovlev’s family trust has at least had the satisfaction of selling a painting that at the time seemed overpriced for a profit of about $270 million. But it audaciously offered the “Salvator Mundi” in a Christie’s contemporary art auction with the certainty of a minimum bid of $100 million from a third-party guarantor. These arrangements vary, but that certainty would usually cost the seller a percentage of the profit and all of the buyer’s fees, to be shared by the auction house and the guarantor. A typical figure is 20 percent: If that were the case here, the unidentified guarantor would have made more than $55 million. Not bad for 19 minutes’ work.
Christie’s slickly marketed sale of what was cataloged as “The Last da Vinci” painting in private hands has left millions of people across the world wondering whether this strange-looking image could really be a Leonardo. And can it really be worth $450 million?
The final price more than doubled the $179.4 million given at Christie’s in May 2015 for Picasso’s 1955 “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’),” the previous high for any artwork at auction.
As with that Picasso, the successful bidder was not identified by Christie’s and the buyer’s name has yet to emerge.
Given the Christie’s result, there is a temptation to wonder if the art market will be recalibrated in the way that it was in 1987, when Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” sold for $39.9 million. That price also blew minds, being almost four times the previous high for any artwork at auction at the time.
“That result encouraged other Van Goghs to come on the market. There are no other Leonardos to come out,” said Guy Jennings, managing director of the Fine Art Group, an advisory company based in London. “This result won’t affect the art market as a whole. It’s a really isolated example.”
But that, in a way, was the point. The Christie’s Leonardo was one of several “isolated examples” that reinvigorated a twice-yearly New York “gigaweek” of Impressionist, modern and contemporary auctions whose format had become a procession of predictable prices for the same predictable names.
If Christie’s broke with orthodoxy by including the Leonardo in its contemporary art auction, so too did Sotheby’s by including a Ferrari Formula One racing car in its Nov. 16 contemporary sale. The F2001, in which Michael Schumacher triumphed in the 2001 Monaco and Hungarian Grands Prix, sold for $7.5 million against a presale low estimate of $4 million.
A rather less incongruous-looking interloper was the serene 1901 canvas “Interior With Woman At Piano, Strandgade 30,” by Vilhelm Hammershoi, included in Sotheby’s Nov. 14 evening sale of Impressionist and modern art in New York. Works by the Danish painter are usually offered in auctions of 19th-century pictures, but this was as an exceptional example. Exposure to the wealthy global client base of an evening “Imps and mods” sale resulted in it fetching $6.2 million, an auction high for the artist.
“It probably wouldn’t have made that much in a 19th-century sale,” said Wendy Goldsmith, an art adviser based in London, who formerly headed Christie’s 19th-century picture department. “We’ll probably end up with ‘best of the best’ sales, with complete cross-fertilization.”
Over all, Sotheby’s evening sale of Impressionist and modern works raised $269.6 million from 64 lots, 92 percent of which sold. An almost identically sized auction of 19th-century European art at Sotheby’s on Nov. 21, where the Hammershoi should have been, took $5.9 million, with just over half the lots selling.
And there also, in that same Sotheby’s evening Impressionist and modern sale, was the Georgia O’Keeffe pastel “Yellow Sweet Peas,” which should have been in an auction of American art. Transplanted into “Imps and mods,” it sold for $4.4 million against a low estimate of $2.5 million, setting an auction high for a work on paper by the artist.
“There is a week in May and a week in November that are the ideal times for selling major artworks at auction,” said Hugo Nathan, a partner in the London-based advisory firm Beaumont Nathan who, like Ms. Goldsmith, was in New York during the week of the Leonardo sale. “The departmental divides are being ignored to maximize this potential for anything of exceptional importance, or incredibly high value.”
The incongruous one-off has become the savior of the top end of the auction world.