If only money could buy empathy


Who gasped out loud at the $450m sum paid for Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi at Christie’s auction house this month? My first reaction was to think about how many people you could help with that kind of money

What joy it would bring to give every person displaced from Grenfell Tower a house, help all of London’s estimated 170,000 homeless people into warm homes or clear the need for food banks by lifting families out of debt.

How ironic that the auctioneer’s hammer fell on an oil painting whose name in translation means Saviour of the World.

If the mystery bidder had been a philanthropist and decided instead to invest the money in human beings, would there be any area beyond his or her grasp?

Happy experiences. Imagine you find yourself in possession of a well-painted pastiche of the Salvator Mundi picked up for £100 at Portobello Road one Saturday.

Because you bought it in the company of someone you love and the sun was shining, and that person gave you a smacker because you’d found an agreeable image to light up your home, and you laughed and walked arm in arm, that would be worth more than the real thing – a memory to last your lifetime.

Social mobility. If you look at the backgrounds of people in the professions, many of them have been fed well in the womb, sat on their mum or dad’s lap to read picture books as babies and toddlers, been encouraged with their homework, taught to play instruments and master languages. They had a head start. It’s why I love charities like Urban Synergy that believe everyone has the right to that kind of encouragement and connects South London schoolchildren to mentors who are business professionals.

The charity’s founder, Leila Thomas, believes role models build confidence, broaden career horizons and provide a network for young people to take their next step in life beyond the school gates.

“No amount of money can help you get up the social ladder without the skills and confidence that mentoring or parenting bring,” says Leila.

An employee adjusts Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi at Christie’s in London before the work is sold in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction on 15 November at Christie’s New York where it’s estimate is in the region of $100 million.

Health. You can’t buy it, although the £340m paid for the Leonardo da Vinci would have helped our stretched doctors and nurses this winter. For individuals, disease and terrible conditions care nothing of whether you’re rich, poor, obscure or famous. They’re opportunists that lurk in genes or in the shadows of our wellness.

American presidents, particularly, have suffered despite their fame and fortune. Woodrow Wilson had a severe stroke that left him incapacitated until the end of his presidency, with his second wife Edith running the government.

Franklin D Roosevelt was struck down by polio aged 39 and used a wheelchair outside of the public eye, and JF Kennedy is thought to have had a degenerative bone disease before his assassination in 1963, living in constant pain.

Winston Churchill’s own battle with depression is well documented. And we all know or know of someone whose experience with ill health makes us cry internally at the sheer randomness and unfairness of life. While you can buy healthcare, you can’t buy health.

Love. As the song says. Among my family and friends you’ll find factory and shop workers and stay-at-home mums who have little wealth but have every wealth in their marriages and partnerships, some of which span half decades or more.

Debt and financial hardship make relationships harder, but when they last and strengthen they’re the most fulfilling thing life can give you.

Even the love of a pet is priceless. We picked up our black kitten from the pet shop in Thornton Heath three years ago. It was the best £150 we ever spent. The pleasure she brings to the family – sitting with and on us, letting us stroke her velvet coat. No money or Leonardo da Vinci could replace that, as ridiculous as it sounds.

Friendship, love and belief in a higher being, or a sense of purpose and vocation, all bring a depth of feeling that defy monetary value.

Yet, the power of money to lift people out of poverty is urgent, summed up by the watery graves of those 33,293 refugees and migrants who’ve died trying to reach Europe in recent years, with at least 5,079 dying or going missing in 2017, according to the UN International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel listed their names, ages and countries of origin the other week. It came out to 46 pages.

That’s as thick as a Christie’s catalogue almost, but for some reason the world fails to see that those fleeing poverty and war are in need of a saviour and their lives are valuable. If only money could buy empathy.

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