Christie’s presents “Salvator Mundi” at the Post-War and Contemporary Auction in New York on 15 November 2017. Photo courtesy of the New York Times.
Da Vinci leveraged as long-term soft power strategy for Middle East
At a time of year when iconic images of Christ are usually hitting our doorsteps, it merits a little more investigation as to why one such image, Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, keeps on hitting the headlines.
Sold in November at Christie’s New York for an astronomical $450 million, it was the highest price ever paid for any work of art. We now know that the picture will be hung, at least for the time being, in the recently opened Louvre Abu Dhabi. Meanwhile, conflicting stories are circulating as to the identity of the ultimate owner(s): could it be Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, a.k.a. MBS, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, who is currently leading an anti-corruption drive? Or is it the Tourism Development & Investment Company of Abu Dhabi? Or a symbolic partnership between the two? Most likely, we will never know the real answer. The speculation, however, only adds to the intrigue. As the many rumours and theories around its ownership circulate, the iconic picture of Christ continues to gain publicity, which only serves to increase the financial value of a work that is destined to hang in a museum which itself is the product of a multi-facetted, multi-million euro Franco-Arab commercial co-operation agreement.
For me, the more interesting point is how the purchaser(s) justified the price to themselves or any higher authority to whom they are accountable. However, if we try to rationalise the figure in the context of its potential contribution to a longer-term soft power strategy, then, I would argue, it seems a comparatively good value.
Coined by Joseph Nye in the late 1980s, the term “soft power” – the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion – is now widely invoked in foreign policy debates. Nye argues that successful states need both hard and soft power – hard power being the ability to coerce others as well as the ability to shape their long-term attitudes and preferences. Post 9/11, the Arab World has watched and now started to emulated how effective the United States and other Western countries have been at projecting soft power through their companies, foundations, universities, churches, and other institutions of civil society. In the same way as Western culture, ideals, and values have been extraordinarily important in helping London and Washington attract partners and supporters, players in The Gulf and elsewhere are upping their game in the soft power league.
An iconic Leonardo in the Louvre Abu Dhabi is much more than an artistic nod to the Mona Lisa in the Paris Louvre which is allegedly insured for more than $800million and an integral part of France’s multi-billion euro tourism industry. Salvator Mundi will be the star attraction of the wider Saadiyat Island cultural project: a magnet for tourists, an escape for expatriates needing their fix of high renaissance art, and a teaching resource for Emirati-students. The total investment in Saadiyat Island has already cost billions of dollars. However, the future returns – both tangible and intangible – for the UAE and its strategic partners in the region are likely to be many multiples of this.
Moreover, if the reports are correct, there are some immediate ‘collateral benefits’ to this particular soft power play: the acquisition and subsequent display of the da Vinci by a Saudi. This UAE partnership would consolidate Saudi Arabia’s alliance culturally, politically and militarily within the volatile Middle East. After all, Saudi Arabia needs all the regional and international support it can get: they are at war with Iran and the Iranian backed rebels based in Yemen, and they are under huge international pressure from humanitarian and other organizations to desist.
Additionally, under the auspices of Saudi Aramco, their state-run oil business – tipped to be the world’s largest ever Initial Public Offering in 2018 – they are investing billions of dollars in a vast cultural project of their own: The King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture. No doubt they will be monitoring the progress of Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island project and the soft pulling power of the Salvator Mundi to optimise their own chances of success. Finally, the bidder in New York potentially out gunned Qatar Museums in Doha, a cultural as well as political rival of the UAE and Saudi, in the process.
Compared to the cost of many arms deals, on the face of it, $450 million spent on a unique 500-year-old picture looks as if it could be a very shrewd move. Watch out for further examples of iconic works of art as symbols of soft power in 2018. As we have already seen, the stakes can be very high.
Paul Hewitt is a freelance Consultant currently based in the UK with extensive international experience in the art world.
To find out more about the results of the sale in which Salvator Mundi was sold, consult ArtTactic’s latest report on the New York Post-War and Contemporary Evening Auction.