It doesn’t matter if this $450 million Leonardo da Vinci painting is real or fake

It doesn’t matter if something is real; it matters if we think it is
It doesn’t matter if something is real; it matters if we think it is
Image: Reuters/Peter Nicholls
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When the New York auction house Christie’s announced in October that it would be auctioning Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi—the first new da Vinci painting to be discovered since 1909—it was estimated that the price tag would top $100 million.

That estimation was correct, though extremely conservative. Yesterday, the painting sold for $450.3 million, a sum which surpasses any work of art sold at auction. The buyer remains unknown.

The price tag is even more astounding when you consider that the authenticity of the painting isn’t entirely agreed upon. Some experts and critics have cited both the uncertain provenance of the painting and its poor condition as reasons it might not be worth such a sum.

The way Christie’s sold the painting was curious, too. As the New York Times noted, it was the first time the auction house “went so far as to enlist an outside agency to advertise the work,” complete with an extremely tender (and high-production-value) YouTube video with a dramatic internet-ready title: “The Last da Vinci.” Christie’s also opted to auction the painting in a contemporary sale, rather than an old masters designation, the latter being a market that has contracted in recent years.

It seems likely that Christie’s adopted these marketing and branding tactics to attract a wider range of buyers. But questions have been raised about whether the painting’s placement was also a calculated move to avoid the scrutiny of old masters experts and to capitalize on the commercial thirst for contemporary art.

Blake Gopnik, art critic and New York Times contributor, told Marketplace that the question of whether or not the painting is authentic is probably beside the point entirely: “I’m not saying that this isn’t Leonardo. I’m also not saying that it is a Leonardo. I’m actually saying that it’s a kind of incoherent question to ask. It’s kind of like asking, ‘Is the moon Jewish, or is the sun gay?'”

Is it really any surprise that we can’t agree on the authenticity of something in 2017? Post-truth has affected our politics, economy, and national consciousnesses. We celebrate startups valued at billions of dollars when the corner bakery has a more viable business model. Politicians deny basic facts with no consequence, simply because they can.

In a world where hype and perception trumps consensus around a fact, perhaps it doesn’t matter if a painting is real or not. If a buyer thinks it’s worth $450 million—it is.