Power Players

Salesforce billionaire Marc Benioff paid $7 million for this statue that may actually be worth less than $5,000

Marc Benioff
Frank Muldoon | CNBC

Salesforce CEO and billionaire Marc Benioff might be having buyer's remorse after some art world experts have called into question the value of a supposedly 200-year-old wooden statue he bought for more than $7 million in a Christie's auction two years ago. Now, some experts are saying the statue could only be worth less than $5,000, The New York Times reports.

Multiple art dealers and experts told The New York Times that the wooden statue depicting a Hawaiian war god could be much less valuable, and created much more recently, than Christie's claimed ahead of the November 2017 auction.

"It's the sort of thing you see in a tiki bar," Daniel Blau, a Munich-based art dealer told The New York Times. Another expert in Hawaiian artwork, Smithsonian Institution curator Adrienne Kaeppler, told the newspaper that she previously informed Christie's of her concern that the statue could only be as old as the 1930s. (Christie's said the statue was made "circa 1780-1820" in promotional materials ahead of the 2017 auction.)

Bishop Museum Hawaiian statue 190304

Photo Credit: Jesse W. Stephen | Bishop Museum

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However, other art experts told the Times that they still believe the statue is as old and valuable as Christie's claimed. Julian Harding, a London-based private art dealer, told the Times that he remains convinced of the statue's authenticity, calling it "a masterpiece of Oceanic art."

Through a spokeswoman, Benioff declined to comment.

In a statement provided to CNBC Make It, a spokeswoman for Christie's pointed to "the body of empirical research, stylistic analysis, and scholarly support that compiled on the figure prior to sale, and which has already been expanded on by an expert in the field of Polynesian art." The spokeswoman also referenced the fact that experts such as Harding have told Christie's that the statue in question is a "probable mate" of a similar wooden artifact that was acquired in Hawaii by the London Missionary Society in 1822 and is currently on display at the British Museum in London. The statue purchased by Benioff is "an important rediscovery that is sure to inspire continued scholarship and interest," according to Christie's.

The statue, which was part of the private art collection of French collectors Pierre and Claude Verite before Christie's put it up for sale, sold at auction for a price of roughly 6.35 million euros (which would be nearly $7.2 million based on current conversion rates), according to the Christie's website.

Benioff, who has an estimated net worth of $6.6 billion according to Forbes, was later revealed to be the purchaser. The billionaire and his wife, Lynne, donated the artifact to the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu.

The museum's president told the Times that the museum is aware of "a question about [the statue's] history and provenance" and that curators are researching the matter.

If it does turn out that Benioff massively overpaid for the statue, he would not be the first billionaire collector to be duped. In 2013, billionaire William Koch won $12 million in damages after he'd paid $320,000 for 24 counterfeit bottles of wine.

Update: This article has been updated with a statement from Christie's.

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