Rendezvous With the Mona Lisa: The Louvre’s First Auction

The view from below is quite nice, but everyone is free to enjoy it. In order to see the pyramid from the top, you have to get onto the museum’s rooftop. The Louvre offered unforgettable experiences like this at Christie’s. For a good cause, of course. Photo: Image by Edi Nugraha on Pixabay.
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For the first time in its history, the Louvre offered objects in an auction sale. If you think that the world’s most visited museum was pushed to take such extreme measures by a lack of money, you’re wrong: the live auction “Bid for the Louvre” on 15 December 2020 was designed to raise additional funds for the institution’s social commitment.

Modern Art and an Exclusive Evening Programme

A painting by Pierre Soulages from the artist’s private collection (estimate: 800,000-1,200,000 euros, hammer price: 1,400,000 euros), a Cartier bracelet along with a private viewing of the crown jewels of France in the Palais du Louvre (estimate: 40,000-60,000 euros, hammer price: 90,000 euros), an elegant carrying trunk by Louis Vuitton – containing exquisite fragrances selected by the highest bidder (estimate: 30,000-50,000 euros, hammer price: 30,000 euros). At first glance, no one would assume that a museum is behind such an offer.

But Jean-Luc Martinez, the director of the Louvre, emphasised in an interview how important it is for him to work with contemporary artist – and, of course, with “patrons” such as Cartier and Luis Vuitton.

If you want to see the Mona Lisa, you should purchase a high-quality coffee table book. In the Louvre you’ll rather see the back of the heads of other visitors. Or you can buy an exclusive event at auction: eye to eye with Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait, without any glass between you and the picture taken down from the wall – and, most importantly, without annoying tourists. Photo: Pueri Jason Scott / CC BY-SA 3.0

The auction also offered events of a kind that we’re familiar with from celebrity events, a dinner with a famous actor or an afternoon with you-know-who. Always for a good cause and a bit of publicity. At the Louvre, such an offer sounds like this:

  • Lot 1: A magical evening by torch light. A tour through the awe-inspiring halls at night, with friends and led by an art historian. The (battery-powered) torches are rather meant to create a special ambiance than to lower electricity costs. Estimate: 10,000-30,000 euros, hammer price: 38,000 euros.
  • Lot 3: Walk on the Louvre’s roofs and enjoy the view of the City of Love with artist JR (and the museum’s fire brigade for your safety). Estimate: 6,000-12,000 euros, hammer price: 42,000 euros.
  • Lot 7: A private concert in the Salle des Caryatides. Estimate: 10,000-30,000 euros, hammer price: 42,000 euros.
  • Lot 9: Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to stand alone in front of the Mona Lisa – but the painting is taken down from the wall and removed from its glass case. There is no more intimate way for non-restorers to enjoy the legendary painting in a legal way. Estimate: 10,000-30,000 euros, hammer price: 80,000 euros.

The Louvre offered a total of 24 lots at the French branch of Christie’s auction house in collaboration with Drouot in a sale entitled “Bid for the Louvre”. But what is the reason behind this change in direction of the Louvre’s first auction?

The Louvre’s Social Responsibility

The “Gazette Drouot”, the in-house magazine of the Paris auction house involved in the sale, shed some light on the matter. On 1 December 2020, an interview with the museum’s director, Jean-Luc Martinez, was published. Martinez explained that, on the one hand, the Louvre wants to put more emphasis on the promotion of modern art – and, above all, of modern artists. On the other hand, Martinez sees his museum as a pioneer in the fight against social injustice. It is well known that the pandemic aggravates many inequalities throughout the world. The Louvre is already carrying out activities with schools and prisons, now the museum is planning to set up a room for workshops, called “Studio”, where adults and children can participate in artistic activities and be introduced to modern art. According to Martinez, this workshop has a closer relationship with the art exhibited in the museum that workshops of other institutions usually do. He said: “My dream is that access should be free and unrestricted.” No queues, no entrance fee, artistic development of socially underprivileged individuals. That sounds pretty much like a dream indeed considering the long queues in front of the museum even though people currently have to pay an entrance fee.

Anyway, artists and patrons were happy to donate to the “Studio” in the Advent sale. The project is scheduled to start at the end of 2021. It will be interesting to see whether the Louvre can actually open the doors of the cultural world to groups that are currently excluded from it. In the meantime, culture itself is struggling to survive. Other museums have to sell objects of their own collections to cover their running costs because they run out of money due to lockdowns and regulations. Perhaps large museums will hold solidarity auctions for smaller institutions in 2021? In any case, the Louvre demonstrates: you don’t always have to sell your most precious items. If the name of the institution is fashionable enough, the possibilities to market yourself by means of exclusive events are unlimited.


The Galerie magazine published an article about the auction.

The offer can still be viewed at Christie’s.

Or as PDF document at Drouot.

Here you can read the interview with Jean-Luc Martinez.

Numerous museums have to let go of items in their collections just to be able to cover their running costs.