Rarely has Christie’s gone into such hyperbolic overdrive as with the marketing of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (around 1500), which is due to go under the hammer in New York on 15 November.

Presented by the firm as the “greatest artistic rediscovery of the 21st century” and even the “Holy Grail of Old Master paintings”, Salvator Mundi is one of fewer than 20 extant paintings by Leonardo, and probably the last in private hands. (There are others on whose attribution scholars disagree.) In its publicity, Christie’s gleefully repeats the words of the distinguished scholar Martin Kemp, who has described the portrait as the “male Mona Lisa”, thus linking it to the one work that has universal recognition.

This is a trophy, destined for a billionaire stimulated by an extraordinary opportunity to acquire a work by the Renaissance genius. But what has really raised eyebrows and hackles in some quarters is its inclusion in a sale of contemporary art. This, according to Christie’s audacious specialist Loic Gouzer, is partly because the firm had already brought in Warhol’s Sixty Last Suppers (1986) and used this to clinch the deal to sell the Leonardo in the same session. But mainly, he says, it is because “there is something immortal and timeless to [Leonardo’s] images”. For him, confronting the painting with 21st-century work “adds a new context, a new perspective”. Gouzer is a pioneer in this sort of disruption, having orchestrated “curated” sales such as the highly successful Looking Forward to the Past auction at Christie’s in May 2015, which included works from Monet to Kippenberger, and raised $705.8m. Read more