How You Could Be One of the Only People in the Room With the ‘Mona Lisa’

A Christie’s auction benefitting the Louvre offers a winning bidder the chance to attend the painting’s annual inspection

The Mona Lisa: Up Close and Personal
The winner (and one guest) will be invited to attend the Mona Lisa's annual inspection—one of the few times the work emerges from behind bullet-proof glass. Héloïse Becker / Christie's

Millions want their moment with the Mona Lisa. Under normal circumstances, Leonardo da Vinci’s beloved masterpiece attracts around 30,000 visitors each day, with tourists from around the world crowding the Louvre’s Salle des États in hopes of snapping selfies with the portrait’s mysterious, softly smiling subject. And though the Parisian museum is currently closed due to Covid-19, one lucky art lover will soon have the chance to view the painting “up close and personal,” as Jack Guy writes for CNN.

Per a press release, this “once-in-a-lifetime” encounter with the Mona Lisa is one of 24 lots up for auction in Christie’s and Hotel Drouot’s “Bid for the Louvre” sale. Expected to sell for between $11,000 and $34,000, “Mona Lisa Mania” will offer the winning bidder and one guest a front-row seat at the da Vinci’s annual inspection, as well as a personal tour of the Louvre’s famed Grand Galerie led by president and director Jean-Luc Martinez.

During the artistic checkup, conservators will briefly remove the portrait from its bullet-proof glass display case and assess its condition. Painted on thin poplar wood at some point between 1503 and 1519, the 500-year-old panel is “threatened by a crack,” according to Christie’s listing.

Online bidding began on December 1 and ends on December 15. Funds raised by the auction—which features a range of museum-centric experiences, limited edition luxury items and contemporary works of art—will benefit the Louvre’s social and educational programs, including the Louvre Museum Studio, a planned cultural space set to open next fall. As the statement notes, the studio will seek to welcome families, students, disabled people and members of marginalized groups.

Other auction highlights range from a private tour of the Louvre’s roof with French artist JR to a diamond-encrusted Cartier bracelet, a Louis Vuitton carrying trunk, and a private viewing of the museum’s prints and drawings collection.

“Everyone has been able to understand the difficulties that the pandemic has created for cultural institutions, and the Louvre is no exception,” says Cécile Verdier, president of Christie’s France, in the statement. “… Thanks to the funds raised by this sale, promoting the Louvre’s activities for audiences unfamiliar with museums [will be] all the more meaningful in these troubled times.”

The Many Layers of the Mona Lisa

While many would relish the chance to experience the Mona Lisa one-on-one, others find the world’s most famous painting overrated.

“Some 80 percent of visitors, according to the Louvre’s research, are here for the Mona Lisa—and most of them leave unhappy,” wrote Jason Farago in a 2019 New York Times article calling on the Louvre to move the artwork to a separate viewing space. “Content in the 20th century to be merely famous, she has become, in this age of mass tourism and digital narcissism, a black hole of anti-art who has turned the museum inside out.”

Last summer, the Louvre temporarily relocated its prize painting while the Salle des États underwent renovations. As Sandrine Bajos and Claire Eckersley reported for Le Parisien, the move sparked mayhem, with visitors complaining of long waits, overcrowding and increasingly brief viewing times. Unhappy museumgoers also decried the distance between the museum’s viewing pen and the portrait. Surprisingly diminutive in size, the canvas measures just 30 by 21 inches, making it difficult to take in details from 15 feet away.

Even after the Mona Lisa returned to its original home, some visitors complained of far-from-ideal experiences.

“My fellow visitors and I could hardly see the thing, and we were shunted off in less than a minute,” Farago recalled for the Times. “All this for a painting that … is hardly Leonardo’s most interesting.”

Despite her detractors, the Mona Lisa remains as popular as ever—and her knowing smile may prove beneficial to the Louvre’s financial situation. This summer, Martinez told Agence France-Presse that the museum had lost more than €40 million (nearly $50 million) due to the pandemic. Though the Louvre reopened in July, it has since closed down again amid spiking case numbers.

“This period of pandemic, which is hitting the most vulnerable in society first, makes this project even more necessary,” says Martinez in the statement. “The art community and those luxury brands with close ties to the Louvre responded instantly to our call for help and I thank them very warmly.”

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