A painting of Christ by Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci has sold for US$ 450 million at auction in New York, obliterating previous records. The 500-year-old oil painting depicting Christ holding a crystal orb, called Salvator Mundi — or Saviour of the World — is one of fewer than 20 paintings by Leonardo da Vinci known to exist.
The 66-centimetre-tall painting dates from around 1500 and shows Christ dressed in Renaissance-style robes, his right hand raised in blessing as his left hand holds a crystal sphere.
The word 'masterpiece' barely begins to convey the rarity, importance and sublime beauty of Leonardo's painting, said Alan Wintermute from Christie's, the auction house that conducted the sale.
He described the artwork as the Holy Grail of old master paintings.
A backer of the auction had guaranteed a bid of at least US$ 100 million, the opening price of the auction, which ran for 19 minutes.
People in the auction house gallery applauded and cheered when the bidding reached US$ 300 million about halfway through, and when the hammer came down on the final bid, US$ 400 million.
The record sale price of US$ 450 million includes the buyer's premium, a fee paid by the winner to the auction house. Christie's did not immediately identify the buyer.
The highest price previously paid for a work of art at auction was $US179.4 million, for Picasso's Women of Algiers (Version O) in May 2015, also at Christie's in New York.
The highest known sale price for any artwork had been US$ 300 million, for Willem de Kooning's Interchange, sold privately in September 2015 by the David Geffen Foundation to hedge fund manager Kenneth C Griffin.
Salvator Mundi's path from Leonardo's workshop to the auction block at Christie's was not smooth. Once owned by King Charles I of England, it disappeared from view until 1900, when it resurfaced and was acquired by a British collector. At that time it was attributed to a Leonardo disciple, rather than to the master himself.
The painting was sold again in 1958 and then acquired in 2005 by a consortium of art dealers who paid less than US$ 10,000. It was badly damaged and partly painted-over.
The art dealers restored the painting and documented its authenticity as a work by Leonardo.
Christie's says most scholars agree the painting is by Leonardo, though some critics have questioned the attribution and some say the extensive restoration muddies the work's authorship.
Christie's capitalised on the public's interest in Leonardo — considered one of the greatest artists of all time — with a media campaign that labeled the painting The Last Da Vinci. The work was exhibited in Hong Kong, San Francisco, London and New York before the sale.