Here’s an unusual, almost philosophical question for you. What’s worth more – a 500 year old painting of Christ by Leonardo Da Vinci or a 42,000 year old, almost perfectly preserved baby mammoth? Both have been in the news of late and both are great examples of how we value or overvalue such seemingly rare items.
The Da Vinci painting, one of the few outside of an actual museum collection, sold for a staggering $450 million (USD), making it the highest priced painting of all time. Ironically it was once traded through Sotheby’s in 1958 for a mere £45, considered at the time to be a copy. Whilst many will marvel at Da Vinci’s draughtsmanship, I have to admit it’s not the sort of thing I would want hanging in my humble apartment (to replace my Cassius Coolidge print of dogs playing poker). The painting, which I personally find rather creepy, depicts Christ holding an orb, symbolic of the world and with the fingers of one hand crossed. Has he just bought a Powerball ticket and if so could I share the epiphany and be privy to the winning numbers?
Maybe the anonymous new owner will recoup some of his or her enormous outlay by copyrighting the image and marketing it on everything from t-shirts, to tea towels and coffee mugs. Clearly its value is not as a great work of art, but simply what some cashed up buyer is prepared to pay. Many will find it somewhat obscene that such a huge amount of money is outlaid (dare I say squandered) on a painting, which could well spend the rest of its life in a bank vault, when the cash could be deployed elsewhere for the common good.
Meanwhile in Sydney the Australian Museum has just taken delivery of a remarkable 42,000 year old baby mammoth as the centre piece of their Giants Of The Ice Age exhibition. Christened Lyuba, the remarkably intact youngster was discovered in the frozen mud of Siberia, still with hair on her body and remnants of mother’s milk in her belly.
The image of her arriving at the Australian Museum in her specially designed, coffin like, road case was very much a poignant one – as if she had been lying in state for over 40,000 years. No doubt thousands of Sydneysiders will flock to the museum to share this incredible find and amazing glimpse of the distant past.
It would be inappropriate to put a dollar value on such an important specimen as Lyuba and mercifully she will never end up at Sotheby’s auction en route to the ownership of some Saudi oil mogul. In 1958 the value of the recently sold Da Vinci painting was 45 quid. Obviously those who recognised it as a copy didn’t think much of it as a work of art, regardless of who painted it. It could well have turned up in a car boot sale or a ‘bonus buy’ on Bargain Hunt. It’s all a bit hard to comprehend.
When it comes to Lyuba, the only value that should be mentioned is the cliché ‘priceless’ and we should all be richer for the experience of her discovery. Bring on the t-shirts and coffee mugs.