Perhaps you may have read (or heard) that I outed the whereabouts of Leonardo da Vinci’s >Savator Mundi in my last column. It was the scoop heard around the world, from Australia to Zimbabwe, picked up by pretty much every major global news outlet as if it were something that actually mattered. Hope the Serene, the yacht where Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is presently enjoying his latest acquisition, doesn’t become an Iranian target, like the Saudi oil tankers recently hit in the Gulf of Oman. Art Basel global director Marc Spiegler called me the art world’s Sherlock Holmes. I’ve been called (a lot) worse.
I was approached by a Middle Eastern man in front of the entrance to the fair in Switzerland last week who asked me, “Are you Kenny Schachter?” After I responded affirmatively, he said, “I’m from Saudi Arabia”—at which point the prominent collector I was previously chattering to recoiled in fear, literally jumping back three steps in one go. Thankfully, he only wanted to say he liked my writing.
My latest scoop is just as juicy: the guarantor of the Leonardo was billionaire Taiwanese investor Pierre Chen (born Chen Tai-ming), who in 1977 founded Yageo, a New Taipei City-based manufacturer of parts found in mobiles, automobiles, and desktops. Chen is the auction houses’ go-to-guarantor for big-ticket items, by far the world’s most successful player in that arena, and the canniest. He’s famous for not even bothering to see the art he places such gargantuan bets on in person—jpegs suffice. He’s that good, and that sure of himself. His touch is as platinum as the key component used in the hard drives and circuit boards he sells.
Meanwhile, one of his twin daughters, Jasmine, is a talented specialist at Sotheby’s (and an Olympic-level horse jumper) who curated an exhibition of George Condo and Picasso in Hong Kong. Her hire was a clever personnel move by the soon-to-be-private auction company, where her dad also guaranteed the SFMOMA-deaccessioned Rothko for $50 million in Sotheby’s last New York sale. (I’d gather Jasmine held shares in Sotheby’s at the time of privatization, so good for her.)
Though the 52-week high of Yageo shares is 1,310 New Taiwan dollars, it last closed at NT$261, near its low on the year of NT$247. So, it’s an especially fortuitous thing that his Leonardo guarantee, at $130 million, netted him a whopping payday of $135 million in pure profit, all with no money down! Which, as I previously reported, has been paid in full. So I asked Jasmine to pick up the tab for a dinner in Basel—I’m still waiting.
While I am at it, the underbidder of the Leonardo is said to be Liu Yiqian, the Chinese owner of the Long Museum. Before the auction, the painting had been offered to gallerist/art investor Adam Lindemann by the son of a restaurateur—never a reassuring sign—first for $50 million and then for a reduced rate of $47 million before finally being sold by Sotheby’s private-treaty division to freeport owner Yves Bouvier for $80 million. Immediately after, Bouvier flipped the painting to Russian Dmitry Rybolovlev for $127 million, not a bad return for a day’s (or two) work. With a hammer price of $400 million for Salvator Mundi, Rybolovlev might consider abandoning his flurry of lawsuits against Sotheby’s and Bouvier and return to his previous pastime of idle oligarch-ing.
Robert Rauschenberg, Buffalo II (1964). Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.