Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is the most widely known painting in the world, and somewhere in the back of our collective minds we all know it must hold the highest price tag for a piece of art. You can imagine my surprise to not find it listed on Wikipedia’s list of the world’s most expensive paintings. When I also didn’t see anything by Botticelli or Caravaggio in the top 10, I suspected I had slipped into an alternative universe.
Turns out it’s because, like many other great paintings, it is technically priceless.
The Mona Lisa is an Old Master artwork, which is a term used to describe artworks made by the artists of greatest expertise – masters – who worked in Europe before 1800. This list includes Da Vinci, Vermeer, Botticelli, Gozzoli, Raphael, Michelangelo, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Van Leyden, Rubens…know what? here’s that list. See for yourself.
Fittingly, the greatest works by these artists are mostly owned by some of the world’s greatest museums. These museums basically never sell them, which puts them beyond the realm of purchase.
And now, here’s the “technical” part.
In 1962 The Louvre in Paris (where the painting hangs) had the Mona Lisa assessed at US$100 million. Adjusted for inflation, that would be about US$850 million today. Which means Elon Musk could very swiftly let go of some of his Tesla stocks and shove the check at the Louvre.
The situation is the same for all other “priceless” artworks. If you dig around and do some tedious calculations, you can put out a price for all artworks that have ever existed, based on previous valuations. Artsy editor Evan Beard did something of the sort and found Artworks like Van Gogh’s Starry Night in the >US$1 Billion range.
So why can’t Elon Musk in a vanity battle with Jeff Bezos get to own these artworks if he chooses?
Well, like I said, the museums don’t sell and will flatly refuse to deal.
But there are figures at which they could be tempted. After all, the first painting on Wikipedia’s list of highest ever purchases of a paintings is an Old Master artwork, and guess who the Old Master was? Leonardo Da Vinci. $450 million was paid in 2017 for the (now famous) Salvator Mundi, and although te exact ownership is unclear- it was either Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, or the Abu Dhabi department of tourism that forked out that much for a painting only recently rediscovered, there was a world record price paid.
The rumours say they bought the painting just because they didn’t want the Qataris to have it. Now imagine what would happen if Bill Gates, Musk, and Bezos all suddenly want a famous painting.