The Ultimate Power of Branding: Why a da Vinci Sold for $450.3 Million

Image: Christie’s

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?

  1. Branding
    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?
  2. Scarcity
    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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.”
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

By |2017-11-27T15:20:30-05:00November 27th, 2017|Branding, Direct Marketing, Fine Art|0 Comments

Using Frames To Sell Artwork



What does your frame say about you?

In the world of selling and marketing your art, there are obvious tactics and subtle tactics. Obvious are things like marketing plans, and all the tricks and techniques I talk about in my Art Marketing Boot Camp series. But there are also many subtle things that we rarely think of as important in selling art. One such subtlety is the impact a frame has on the sale.

You’ve probably heard the story of a gallery owner who told me of a painting that had hung for a year with no buyers. The gallery owner believed it was a spectacular painting, and it was priced at $2,500, but it simply was not selling. But before returning it to the artist, the gallery owner decided to try reframing it. So he sent it off to his top framer and invested in a very expensive, ultra-high-quality frame that cost as much as the painting itself. He then changed the painting’s price to $14,999. The painting sold the first week it reappeared.

Two things happened here. High prices often attract high-end buyers who believe that if the price is too low, the work can’t be that good. We won’t talk about pricing strategy today, but we will talk about framing strategy, which goes hand-in-hand with pricing: High-priced paintings need to reflect that with good frames.

I think frames are like automobiles. Any basic, inexpensive car will get someone from Point A to Point B. So why do affluent people spend money on high-priced vehicles? Because they look good in them. Cars are like picture frames for people. If the car is expensive and looks it, the driver must be a successful person. The right cars send a signal of success. Quality frames send a signal of success, too. If the frame is that good, it must be surrounding a good painting.

Imagine an environment for a moment. A 20,000-square-foot home on the ocean filled with priceless antiques, the highest-quality furnishings, a 12-foot Steinway grand — and walls full of paintings in cheap frames. Though you can’t imagine paying $20,000 for a couch, that’s not at all unusual in the homes of highly affluent people. You cannot expect them to respond to a cheap frame. It’s like putting a Maserati engine in a Pinto. It’s not just about the engine, it’s about the full experience, the full appearance.

A Dramatic Turnaround

I once visited an artist friend’s home to pick up a painting. He confided in me that he was not selling as well as he wanted, yet I knew his work was undervalued and would become very desirable. I told him that the problem was the cheap-looking frames he was putting on his work, which were keeping his prices down and his sales low. I suggested that if he improved the quality of the frames, he’d see a disproportionate rise in the sales of his paintings — and could therefore increase his prices. He told me he couldn’t afford to frame a whole show in expensive frames. My response was that it’s a cost of doing business and that if he was serious about being in business, he needed to get serious about his frames.

To his credit, the artist listened. He experimented with one big painting by having a very high-quality frame made. It sold immediately at a high price and funded upgrades for all his frames. The end result, as predicted, was higher sales and higher prices. Today his prices are soaring, and his paintings are in high demand. Though he is doing well today because of the quality of his paintings, he had been being ignored because most people will pass by paintings in cheap, unattractive frames.

I know many a gallery owner who reframes paintings to make them sell. The most successful galleries always use high-quality frames.

What about you? Are your frames preventing sales or holding your prices down? One thing most highly successful artists have in common is that they know the importance of investing in really high-quality frames.

Price does not always equate to quality. There are many wonderful frames that look good at a reasonable price. Yet even then, a discerning collector will see the difference between a $100 frame and a $2,500 frame. I know artists and galleries that spend hundreds, sometimes thousands on frames, and even a couple who spend tens of thousands on frames. They know they will get their price with the right frame. A person buying a $10 million painting probably wants a million-dollar frame (yes, they do exist).

I recently purchased a painting online by a very well-known and accomplished artist but was very disappointed when it arrived. My immediate reaction was that the painting did not look very good in person — until I realized the problem was the frame. I simply was not willing to hang that frame in my home because it stuck out like a sore thumb.

I encourage you to experiment and see the difference. It isn’t easy, takes a big leap of faith, and depends very much on the customer profile and where they are viewing your work. It’s important to think of a painting as a whole package. Quality paintings and quality frames go together.

Eric Rhoads

PS: Subtle clues send deep messages to buyers. People who want the best won’t consider you the best unless your subtle clues are the clues that indicate quality, which includes the quality of your work, the frame quality, and even the back of the painting — which won’t impact the initial sale of the work but will impact the buyer’s perceptions once the painting is in their hands ready to hang. Many artists I know make their own frames in order to control quality and match the painting perfectly, which is great if you can take the time.

By |2019-02-04T10:07:09-05:00December 12th, 2013|Fine Art|22 Comments

The Experience of “Being Painted.”

It was logical… my column in an art magazine should not show my photo, it should be a painting. We started putting out feelers about who was good, who was hot, who was up and coming and who fit the style of our magazine. It was Timothy R. Thies.

"I don’t paint from photos.. or at least I prefer not to. When can you fly up to see me," said Timothy. A couple weeks later I arrived in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho at Timothy’s studio.  We had a cup of coffee, I checked my email and then it was time… sit still for several hours.

I’m a portrait painter myself but most of my work has not been "from life" and I have never been on the other side of the brush. I had no idea what to expect and I found the experience to be better than expected. I sat very still at the same angle for about six hours with a break every couple of hours. Many portrait artists don’t want you to talk. Fortunately Timothy Thies was an exceptionally nice man and was willing to chat throughout the whole day. When was the last time you got to chat casually for eight hours with someone you barely knew, someone who lived the life of an artist? I think that was the best part. A new friend, new thoughts and ideas and a chance to learn a lot about his life, his experiences and his thoughts on just about everything, including art.

There is something very special about seeing your portrait beautifully framed and hanging in your home and knowing it might hang somewhere for hundreds of years… especially when it is painted by a fine, highly regarded artist like Timothy Thies. 

For hundreds of years the only way to record a likeness was through portraiture. Even after photography was invented the wealthy aristocrats in France and the US continued the practice. It is a wonderful experience to visit someones home and see portraits of past relatives lining the walls. Oil portraits are so much more elegant than photographs.

Most portraits today tend to be of captains of industry for corporate board rooms or private clubs, college presidents, supreme court justices and U.S. presidents. Though some wealthy people I know have been preserved in oils it is a very small percentage. Frankly, I’d like to see more of it. Oil portraiture is a fine tradition that will have a life longer than any photo and a chance it won’t get shoved in a drawer after you’re gone. I highly recommend it.

– Eric Rhoads

By |2005-02-04T01:24:44-05:00February 4th, 2005|Fine Art|0 Comments
Go to Top