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Controversial Da Vinci is New York auction season star
Christie's unveils Leonardo da Vinci's 'Salvator Mundi' with Andy Warhol's 'Sixty Last Suppers' at Christie's New York on October 10, 2017 in New York City. Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Christie's Auction House/AFP.

by Catherine Triomphe

NEW YORK (AFP).- What is the only Da Vinci painting on the open market worth? A Russian billionaire believes he was swindled when he bought it for $127.5 million. This week he'll find out if he was right.

"Salvator Mundi," a painting of Jesus Christ by the Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci circa 1500, is the star lot in New York's November art auctions that will see Christie's and Sotheby's chase combined art sales of more than $1 billion.

It goes under the hammer at Christie's on Wednesday evening, something of an incongruous lot in the postwar and contemporary sale, which attracts the biggest spenders in the high-octane world of international billionaire art collectors.

The auction house, which declines to comment on the controversy and identifies the seller only as a European collector, has valued the painting at $100 million.

"Look at the painting, it is an extraordinary work of art," said Francois de Poortere, head of the old masters department at Christie's. "That's what we should focus on."

But the price will be closely watched -- not just as one of fewer than 20 paintings by Da Vinci's hand accepted to exist, but by its owner Dmitry Rybolovlev, the boss of soccer club AS Monaco who is suing Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier in that city-state.

Rybolovlev, who spent an eye-watering $2.1 billion on 37 masterpieces purchased through Bouvier over a decade, accuses Bouvier of conning him by hundreds of million dollars by overcharging him on a string of deals, and pocketing the difference.

At the heart of the court battle is "Salvator Mundi," which has been exhibited at The National Gallery in London.

Bouvier bought the Da Vinci at Sotheby's for $80 million in 2013. He resold it within days to the Russian tycoon, for $127.5 million, netting a $47.5 million profit. Bouvier denies any wrongdoing.

The painting's rarity is difficult to overstate. For years it was presumed to have been destroyed.

Long believed to have been a copy, before eventually being certified as authentic, it fetched a mere 45 pounds ($60 in today's money) in 1958 before disappearing again for decades. It emerged only in 2005 when it was purchased from a US estate.

All other known paintings by Da Vinci are held in museum or institutional collections.

"For auction specialists, this is pretty much the Holy Grail," Loic Gouzer, co-chairman of Christie's Americas postwar and contemporary art department, has said. "It doesn't really get better than that."

A Ferrari on the block
Christie's has sought to emphasize Da Vinci's inestimable contribution to art history by hanging "Salvator Mundi" next to Andy Warhol's "Sixty Last Suppers" -- which depicts Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" 60 times over, also on sale with a $50 million estimate.

Pablo Picasso holds the world record for the most expensive piece of art ever sold at auction. His "The Women of Algiers (Version O)" fetched $179.4 million at Christie's in New York in 2015.

Other highlights being offered by the auction house are "Contraste de formes," a 1913 Fernand Leger valued at $65 million and "Laboureur dans un champ" by Van Gogh, painted from the window of a French asylum in 1889 and valued at $50 million.

Sotheby's, whose May sales languished behind Christie's, says it has more than 60 works making their auction debuts this week.

Chief among them is Francis Bacon's "Three Studies of George Dyer," valued at $35-45 million, and which it says is appearing in public for the first time in 50 years. Bacon painted the work in 1966 during his passionate relationship with Dyer.

Two other such triptychs are in museums, while an additional two have been offered at auction in recent years.

Sotheby's other star lot is a 1972 Warhol "Mao," exhibited in Berlin, Turin and Paris, and now back in public view for the first time since 1974. It has been given an estimate of $30-40 million.

Each of the other 10 "Mao" paintings of the same size are in prestigious public and private collections, including the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Sotheby's calls it one of the most iconic images of the 20th century.

And for the first time, the house has added a rare automobile to an art auction, offering Michael Schumacher's Grand Prix-Winning Ferrari for upwards of $4 million on Thursday. But is it a work of art?

"No, it's not," said Gregoire Billault, senior Sotheby's vice president, of the sleek, low-slung, fire-engine red vehicle. "But it's... the very best racing car ever sold at an auction."

© Agence France-Presse

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