NEW YORK: A 500-year-old painting believed to be by Leonardo da Vinci has sold for $450.3 million in New York, blazing a new world record for the most expensive work of art sold at auction, Christie's said.
"Salvator Mundi" or "Savior of the World," which depicts Jesus Christ, more than doubled the previous record of $179.4 million paid for Pablo Picasso's "The Women of Algiers (Version O)" in New York in 2015.
Lost for years only to resurface at a regional auction in 2005, it is one of fewer than 20 Da Vinci paintings generally accepted as being from the Renaissance master's own hand, according to Christie's.
All the others are held in museum or institutional collections.
Wednesday's price was all the more extraordinary given that the oil on panel fetched only 45 British pounds in 1958, at the time believed to have been a copy, before subsequently disappearing for years.
Dated to around 1500, the work sold after 19 minutes of frenzied bidding -- an incongruous Old Master in Christie's evening postwar and contemporary sale, which attracts the biggest spenders in the high-octane world of international billionaire art collectors.
Christie's declined to identify the buyer, other than to confirm that bids came from "every part of the world."
The price could call into question a legal suit lodged by its Russian seller, who accused a Swiss art dealer in Monaco of allegedly overcharging him when he bought the work for $127.5 million in 2013.
The value of private sales are rarely known, but a Willem de Kooning and a Gauguin were previously thought the most expensive, sold in 2015 separately for $300 million each, according to US media reports.
- Controversy -
Auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen opened bidding at $75 million, pulling in 45 bids from clients on the phone and in the room.
Whoops and applause rippled through the packed room as bids quickly escalated into unchartered territory, coming down to two head-to-head rivals on the telephone.
Pylkkanen eventually hammered the painting at $450 million. The final price came to $450.3 million including the buyer's premium.
Even discounting any commission, the sale represents a tidy profit for Dmitry Rybolovlev, the boss of soccer club AS Monaco, who bought the painting in 2013.
The oligarch has accused art dealer Yves Bouvier of conning him out of hundreds of million dollars by overcharging him on a string of deals, including on the Da Vinci, and pocketing the difference.
Bouvier bought the work at Sotheby's for $80 million in 2013. He resold it within days to the Russian tycoon, for $127.5 million.
An aide to Rybolovlev, Sergey Chernitsyn, praised the "professionalism and expertise of Christie's" and told AFP that the sale "restores part of the value" of the billionaire's art collection.
But the legal case would continue, he said.
A lawyer for Bouvier implied the sale undermined any possible claim against his client for fraud.
"We have always said that he (Rybolovlev) paid the right price," lawyer Francis Szpiner told AFP. "I observe that (Bouvier) sold him a painting and four years later, he has sold it with an exceptional gain of 322 million dollars."
Christie's declined to comment on the controversy and had valued the painting pre-sale at $100 million.
- 'Holy Grail' -
So huge was interest that nearly 30,000 people flocked to see the painting at Christie's showrooms in Hong Kong, London, San Francisco and New York, the auction house said.
The work was exhibited at The National Gallery in London in 2011, after years of research trying to document its authenticity after it was found, mistaken for a copy, in a US auction in 2005.
Christie's experts said the painting's rarity was difficult to overstate, calling it the "Holy Grail" for auction specialists.
For years it was presumed to have been destroyed, emerging only in 2005 when it was purchased from a US estate.
"It's an extraordinary price for an extraordinary painting. Leonardo inspired generations and continues to inspire today," said Francois de Poortere, head of the Old Masters department at Christie's.
"He was a genius of his time and people still see him as that. It's an extraordinary feeling to see the magnetism around this painting."
The painting depicts a half-length figure of Jesus, holding a crystal orb in his left hand as he raises his right in benediction.
Christie's says it belonged to Charles I, after possibly being made for the French royal family and taken to England by Queen Henrietta Maria when she married the English monarch in 1625.
Of the roughly 20 known contemporary copies of the Mundi, some by pupils or followers of the artist, none is of sufficient quality to support an attribution to the master himself, the auction house says.