Chances are you saw the buzz about the painting called Salvator Mundi (Latin for “Savior of the World”) by Leonardo da Vinci, which was offered recently by Christie’s auction house.
The painting was sold to an undisclosed buyer for $450.3 million, the highest price ever paid for a work of art at an auction. Prior to this, Picasso’s Le Femmes D’Alger (Version “O”) held the record at $179 million. Willem de Kooning’s Interchange is known to have been sold privately in September 2015 to Kenneth C. Griffin, a hedge fund manager, who paid about $300 million.
The history of pricing for Salvator Mundi makes this branding story even more amazing. The painting was once owned by King Charles I of England, but after his death it was sold several times, then dropped from view until 1900, when a British collector acquired it. At the time it was attributed not to Leonardo, but to one of his students.
In 1958 the painting was sold again, and then, in 2005, it was acquired by a consortium of art dealers who bought it for less than $10,000 because it was damaged and not attributed to the master himself.
With great patience, the dealers had the painting restored and authenticated as a genuine work by Leonardo. Via Sotheby’s, they sold the painting in 2013 to Swiss businessman Yves Bouvier, who paid $80 million. Bouvier quickly flipped it to billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev for $127.5 million, making a quick $48 million. (That transaction and others between the two buyers led to a tangle of lawsuits, still unresolved.) It was Rybolovlev who commissioned Christie’s to sell the painting, and it sold for $450.3 million.
So why did this painting sell for so much, and what marketing lessons can be learned from that?
If you were to ask people what they think is the best painting in the world, most would say da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or The Last Supper. People who know little about art will visit the Mona Lisa at the Louvre and not even look at anything else in the museum. That means the da Vinci brand is probably the most important of all artist brands. It’s the brand of the artist and his two most famous paintings that make this painting so desirable.
But is that the only reason this painting went from $10,000 in 2005 to $450.3 million just 12 years later?
Part of the da Vinci brand is the scarcity of the paintings. Fewer than 20 paintings by Leonardo are known to have survived. People want what they can’t have. Christie’s referred to the painting as “The Last da Vinci” — the only known painting by the Renaissance master still in the hands of a private collector.
- Making the Painting Famous
Christie’s broke all the rules for auction houses on this painting. Rather than sticking to the conventional approach to bringing a painting to auction, they hired a marketing agency, Gouzer and Heller. Christie’s knew this was a chance to make the sale of a lifetime, so, rather than relying on their own expertise, they hired professionals to make the painting famous leading up to the auction.
The agency created a video that positioned the painting as “the Holy Grail” of the auction business and compared it to “the discovery of a new planet,” and the video soon went viral. They also brought in top experts to verify the painting and talk about how remarkable it is. Outside experts’ approval is more powerful than singing one’s own praises.
- Patience and Timing
Christie’s took their time. Rather than jumping the gun and putting the painting up for auction the moment they received it, they carefully built out a series of viewings around the world. Thousands of people lined up to see the work at pre-auction viewings in Hong Kong, London, San Francisco, and New York.
And the auction itself was timed to take advantage of the release of Walter Isaacson’s new Da Vinci biography, which was bound to help create interest in the painting (and now the painting is creating interest in the book). It never hurts to ride someone else’s wave.
- A Change of Setting
Christie’s knew that Old Master paintings were not selling well and that attendance at those auctions has been thin. They determined that if they packaged this painting with the Old Masters, it might not bring the buzz and the price they wanted. So they put the painting in a contemporary auction known to attract the best collectors. Sometimes the best way to stand out is to stand where you’re not used to being seen. I always say, “Stand in the river where the money is flowing.”
- Star Power Creates Buzz
Christie’s managed to get a number of celebrities to come to the auction, creating a buzz of anticipation and making the event more important. The auction ultimately had a capacity crowd and attracted the top dealers and collectors in the world. They even created special red paddles for the event, which became collector’s items.
- Publicity Makes a Difference
Christie’s generated lots of press about this painting and its heritage before the event. Publicity created talk and desire to see the painting. Well placed articles by credible third parties can do more than any amount of advertising.
There is no doubt in my mind that this painting would have been the most expensive painting ever sold at auction no matter what Christie’s did, but the money spent on marketing probably doubled or tripled its value. Rather than selling for $150 million, it sold for $450.3 million. Whatever Christie’s paid for the marketing was well worth it.
This is the best example of art marketing in the history of art.
What can artists learn from this great marketing experience?
1. Understand that it is important to make and keep your reputation known. Branding is important to all artists, whether it’s done accidentally or deliberately.
2. Don’t rely on hope that people know who you are. Chances are you and I are not as well known as we think we are. Professional advertising and PR campaigns to build awareness can make a big difference.
3. Building a story, a legend, is part of brand-building. Keep your story in front of the eyes of collectors. If you stay visible over your entire career, you can leverage your notoriety into more sales and higher prices. Look for quirks and distinctions, and tell stories to build your own legend.
4. Scarcity matters. Look at artists like T. Allen Lawson or George Carlson. They don’t produce a lot of work each year, but when they do, collectors snatch it up because it’s rare. It also makes their prices higher. If you flood the market, you keep your prices down.
5. Quality matters. Always strive to be the very best you can be, and to become known as the best. Quality alone isn’t enough if no one is aware of you, but it’s absolutely important. Though one can market bad artwork and turn a mediocre artist into a success, I don’t recommend trying it.
There is ample evidence that millions of dollars have been made by artists you and I may not respect from a style or technique standpoint. Yet in most cases these artists did not get “discovered” to become famous. They orchestrated their careers with marketing by building their brands, building awareness of the importance of their work, and increasing their notoriety. The result is that many have been reaping the rewards for years. And after they become well known, they don’t just rely on the momentum they’ve created, they continue to seek ways to stay visible and well known for their lifetime. They understand that if you’re out of sight, you’re out of mind.
Is marketing “evil” or “manipulative”? Well, it can be, but I don’t recommend those approaches.
Marketing done right is really nothing more than helping others find you when they otherwise may never know you exist. Marketing can be done tastefully and with elegance, or it can be done brashly and inappropriately. You control how your marketing is presented.
Christie’s took advantage of the fact that millions of people make a trek to the Louvre each year, walk by hundreds of masterworks, and visit the Mona Lisa behind glass, take a selfie, then leave.
Though Leonardo was one of the most brilliant minds ever to have lived and one of the most masterful of artists, much of his perceived value has been driven by modern marketing efforts by the Louvre to promote the Mona Lisa, which is the biggest draw to the museum. Even still, Christie’s did not rely on that alone; they worked with outsiders to build on that and make that painting even more famous.
Never underestimate the power of a well thought-out marketing strategy. It can make an unknown artist known, or take an artist whose work isn’t selling and make it sell. It can get an artist invited to events and get people buzzing. If marketing is good enough for one of the finest and most respected auction houses in the world, if it’s good enough for Leonardo and Christie’s, it’s good enough for you.