In the eye of the beholder

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In the eye of the beholder.

As people checked out the latest home valuations from the Auckland Council this week, many will have wondered, 'is my house (or my neighbour’s) really worth that much?'

Certainly the owner of the Ellerslie house that is today valued at $1.5 million compared to its 2014 value of $280,000 must be scratching their head (and jumping for joy).

Valuations are entirely subjective; it’s impossible to say with any certainty whether an asset is 'worth it' or not. At the end of the day, value is what somebody is prepared to pay.

That value is in the eye of the beholder was amply illustrated in last week’s record sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi painting.

The artwork sold for US$450m (NZ$600m) at a Christie’s auction in New York, shattering the record for the most expensive artwork ever sold. The painting depicts Christ in a blue robe holding a crystal orb and is one of fewer than 20 paintings by da Vinci known to still exist.

The painting is somewhat controversial. Its price history ranges from less than $US10,000 in 2005 when it was thought to be a copy, to the $US127.5 million price paid by Russian billionaire collector Dmitry E. Rybolovlev in 2013.

The 66cm painting is damaged and has been extensively renovated. So much so that art historian and Leonardo specialist, Jacques Franck says: “The composition doesn’t come from Leonardo. It’s a good studio work with a little Leonardo at best.”

Another art expert estimated only 20 per cent of the painting’s surface was rendered in Leonardo’s Italian workshop, with the rest carefully reconstructed by conservators.

The other contentious aspect of this sale was Christie’s marketing approach, which one art critic described as “a thumping epic triumph of branding and desire over connoisseurship and reality.”

The auction was much hyped and Christie’s promotional campaign was unprecedented in the art world. 

Christie’s took the painting on a world tour, with an estimated 27,000 people viewing it at events in New York, London, Hong Kong and San Francisco. The auction house claims the painting had the highest ever number of viewers for an individual work of art.

A YouTube video, entitled “The Last da Vinci” featured Leonardo DiCaprio, along with influential art advisers proclaiming the painting “the holy grail” and likening it to “the discovery of a new planet”.

Curiously, Christie’s placed the painting in its high-profile contemporary art sale rather than its less sexy old masters auction, where it properly belongs.

Art experts argue Christie’s used its marketing prowess to take advantage of collectors’ unquenchable thirst for contemporary art while circumventing the scrutiny of old masters experts who have questioned the painting’s authenticity and condition.

Perhaps the most vexing aspect of this sale is the price. Can a damaged painting with questionable authenticity really be worth $US450m? Why would someone pay such an extraordinary price?

Stephen Campbell, an art history professor at John Hopkins University, said: “I am deeply shocked by the price. The one per cent — who own half the planet’s wealth — are looking for the last few places to deposit their wealth. This is a very limited, overvalued sector of the art market.”

Another commentator said he could not reconcile the price: “It’s become a trophy, a market fetish. It’s been taken away from the interest of scholars.”

Arguably, you could say the same of the Auckland property market ...


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