Cellini’s Stellar Cellar

The mystery of the saltcellar with the sky-high price.

Have you seen this saltshaker? Two views of the stolen Cellini

On May 11, thieves stole a saltcellar worth $58,000,000 from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Austria. I’ll give you a moment to ponder the conjunction of a piece of tableware and all those zeros, and then we’ll begin again.

Benvenuto Cellini was a 16th-century Florentine sculptor and goldsmith. According to his Autobiography,itself one of the masterpieces of the Renaissance time period, he led an especially colorful life, full of brawls, feuds, and clandestine bouts of buggery. He confessed to three murders and was several times imprisoned, in one instance breaking out of the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome by climbing down a homemade rope of knotted bedsheets.

Despite these distractions, his career proceeded apace. As a boy, he had apprenticed with a local craftsman and then studied briefly with Michelangelo. His skills were undeniable, and so was his conniving. He was, in many ways, a monstrous man—a terrible braggart, vain, egotistical, and self-serving. He was obsequious to his benefactors (among them two popes, one of the Medicis, and King Francis I of France) and savagely dismissive of his competitors. But he knew how to create luxurious objects, and the tone of the times was just right for his flourishes.

As Cellini reached adulthood, Italian art was entering into its Mannerist phase. The discoveries of the Renaissance—perspective, knowledge of the human form, heightened compositional sophistication—had been assimilated into visual culture. Now it was time to get playful, to push style to its limits, to overdo everything that could be overdone—just the sort of thing Cellini was good at. For some years, he fashioned medallions and the like for popes and cardinals; in his 40s he finally got the chance to produce full-scale sculpture, most notably a statue of Perseus beheading Medusa that now stands in the Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence.

And then there was the saltcellar. Cellini made the thing of gold, enamel, and ivory between 1540 and 1544, on commission for the king of France. On it there are two recumbent figures: One represents the Earth, with a miniature temple by her side where peppercorns were to be stored; the other represents the sea, with a boat beside him for holding salt. Additional reclining figures, representing winds and the times of day, are carved into the base upon which the whole thing stands. It measures about 10 inches by 13 inches, and it remains, to this day, one of the most striking and celebrated works of Mannerist design—indeed, the very emblem of that era’s excesses. According to Cellini, the king himself “gasped in amazement and could not take his eyes off it.” No other work of Cellini’s goldsmithing survives.

The thieves who took it had a laughably easy job: They broke into the museum at about 4 a.m., setting off an alarm that a guard then immediately reset, assuming it was a glitch in the security system. It was four hours before anyone noticed the saltcellar was gone; Interpol was then called in and the enormous price tag released to the press.

The figure they cited is stunning, and no wonder: It comes out of an empyrean that few objects ever visit. Art, like any other commodity, receives its worth partly from the quality of the artifact and partly from its scarcity. But the Cellini is unique—and not just in the sense in which all artworks are unique: Nothing even remotely like it exists. Lose a Warhol, and you can always get another one. Rembrandts are hard to find, but not impossible. But there’s only one Cellini table piece.

It is, then, a peculiar thing to appraise. There is simply no precedent for such a thing being on the market. It’s a national treasure; museums exist to acquire these sorts of artifacts, and no one ever sells them: To do so would be like hocking the Liberty Bell. Still, one can speculate about what would happen were such an auction to take place. “It’s an icon of its period,” David Redden, vice chairman of Sotheby’s, says of the saltcellar. “It’s a sensational piece; it’s extraordinary. There’s nothing else like it. It would be desired by every great museum in the world, every great collection in the world. It’s our view that $58 million is, if anything, much too low. We could be talking nine figures.” Which would be a record sale, by many millions of dollars.

But the same forces that make the Cellini so valuable at auction make it almost impossible to sell on the black market. A corrupt collector with, say, a stolen da Vinci drawing can probably hang it safely on his wall; only a specialist would know the provenance of the thing. But anyone who’s taken an introductory art history class would recognize the Cellini at a yard sale. It’s a hot potato: Show it, and you might as well be wearing a sign that says “Arrest me.”

In truth, then, I misspoke when I said the piece was “worth” all that money since there’s no possible market for it, no economic transaction in which it can function—except, perhaps, ransom or insurance. You can use the Cellini at your table, I suppose, in which case it’s worth about as much as a pair of plastic salt and pepper shakers from Target: $3.98 or so. Beyond such practical terms, it’s as worthless as it is priceless.

Well, this is fun, this talk of art and money; it’s like a hyper-inflated episode of the Antiques Roadshow. But of course it’s beside the point. For those of us—and it is most of us—who neither buy nor sell artworks, art is free, or nearly so. Gallery-going remains one of the only forms of cultural adventure that costs nothing at all, and many museums do not charge more than the price of a movie to get in and take a look. To the viewing public, then, art is worth only and exactly the pleasure they get from looking at it.

What’s more, art is a public thing; it gets its meaning from the interaction of artist, material, and audience. And as the last of these diminishes to a single viewer, the worth of the object approaches nil. The loss of the Cellini is heartbreaking, but there’s a chance it will be recovered; these things often are. In the meantime there’s this small consolation: If whoever has it paid more than $3.98 for it, he got rooked.