Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi puts a high price on keeping up with the billionaires

IT’S time for another exciting instalment of Art for Dead Pot Plants, in which a person with the artistic sensibilities of a deceased gladioli – moi – strings big words into sentences you can’t understand, just like arty people do, but without the zillion dollar price tag.

Before we get to that though, let’s recap on recent events in politics.

Event 1: The Prime Minister decided to take next week off and no-one believed the reasons he gave – the Senate needed time to think about same-sex marriage; the dog ate his homework; the carpet in the Lower House needed steam cleaning; he had a stomach bug; Tony Abbott made him do it; he was so excited about a tax cut for “hard-working Australians” that he thought it was Christmas already.

The Prime Minister decided to take next week off and no-one believed the reasons he gave – the Senate needed time to think about same-sex marriage; the dog ate his homework; the carpet in the Lower House needed steam cleaning; he had a stomach bug; Tony Abbott made him do it.

Event 2: He announced a tax cut for “hard-working Australians” that left “ordinary Australians”, “between jobs Australians”, “slack-arse Australians” and “elected Australians” feeling a bit miffed, but not too much, when the tax cut appeared about as thought-through as the last pollies’ promise to fund a high-speed train line from Sydney to Melbourne.

Event 3: Tony Abbott took the opportunity to kick Malcolm in the privates while he was down.

Event 4: Bill Shorten took the opportunity to kick Malcolm in the privates while he was down, but had to wait in line for Tony.

Event 5: More than 20 million Australians went about their business, regardless.

Event 6: Donald “grab ‘em by the pussy” Trump stood up for women, saying we were “very special” and it’s “very, very good” that years of sexual assault and sexual harassment by powerful men was “being exposed”. Billionaire Tom Steyer is running a $20 million campaign to get Trump impeached, which just about sums up the state of American democracy under its current president.  

Anyway, back to art. There was a big event in the art world this week, when a single painting of Jesus sold for $592 million.

I’ve been trying to think of a way to break the figure of $592 million down to something that an average Australian eating toast and Vegemite on a Saturday morning can relate to. How about this?

A federal backbencher’s salary – minus the copious allowances – is about $200,000 a year. Thus the unidentified billionaire who bought Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi – Latin for saviour of the world – could have used the $592 million to pay the annual base salaries of Australia’s 226 upper and lower house politicians for more than 13 years.

The $592 million could have paid for 7.4 million pairs of goats for some of the world’s poorest people, or the Silverton wind farm ($450 million) to provide electricity to 137,000 Australian homes, with the change for battery storage.

But the billionaire bought the Jesus painting instead.

Not that there’s anything wrong with a nice Jesus artwork.

In 2015 I went to South America with friends. In Rio de Janeiro we visited the statue of Christ the Redeemer, the 30-metre tall soapstone monument on Corcovado mountain with spectacular views of that most spectacular Brazilian city.

Because we’re Orstrayans the statue was only ever referred to as Big Jesus before we arrived in Brazil. But we were stunned into silence at the beauty and serenity of the statue at close quarters. Then we took selfies for half an hour and returned to normal.

At Cusco in Peru we were rather taken with another painting of Jesus – Marcos Zapata’s 1753 version of the Last Supper, where Christ and the apostles sit down to a final meal of roast guinea pig.

But the da Vinci Salvator Mundi is clearly something else. Then again, there are more billionaires in the world now than there’s ever been – about 1500 according to Forbes magazine – and that’s a lot of people with a lot of status to maintain, and only so many old masters to go round.

One way of thinking about the $592 million price tag is to look at your neighbour’s barbecue.

Now some people couldn’t care less what their neighbour’s barbecue looks like. They’re the kind who are happy with a metal plate on a few wobbly bricks, and Bob’s your uncle.

But somewhere back in the past, not too long ago, people in the ’burbs became “aspirational”, and somehow backyard barbecues, outdoor living areas and foodies developed. The barbecue wasn’t just a barbecue anymore. It was a thing we had to aspire to and our friends came around to admire. It reflected how civilised we were, and how cashed-up, because aspirational barbecues don’t come cheap.

The new and glamorous backyard barbecues slow-cooked as well as grilled, fried and burnt. They came with dials and timers and different custom-made surfaces. Those barbecues were often larger and more substantial than the oven or cooker in the kitchen.

But people came to look at them and ooh-ed and aah-ed, which for many was the point of the exercise. And if your neighbour looked over the back fence and coveted your big shiny barbecue, all the better.

That’s part of the reason why one of the world’s billionaires put down $592 million to buy Salvator Mundi – because he, and invariably it’s a he, could. And when your net worth is more than $50 billion – and there’s 10 billionaires in the world today in that category – dropping $592 million for one artwork is still noticed, but the bragging rights? Priceless.

In 2006 casino magnate Steve Wynn contracted to sell a Picasso to billionaire Steve Cohen for $139 million, and put his elbow through it by mistake. The repair bill was $40 million.

This story And I know what I like first appeared on Newcastle Herald.