Salvator Mundi: Is It the Last Leonardo?
Updated: Apr 30
“Why don’t they have someone copy it and send the copy, no one would know the difference.” -- Andy Warhol
In 2017, a work attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi, stunned the art world, selling for the almost cartoonish price of $450 million at Christie’s in New York.
With a bang of the gavel, Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World) became the world’s most expensive painting. By far. The shockingly high price reflected the extreme rarity of Leonardos. The painting obliterated the prior record of $300 million held by Willem de Kooning's Interchange. It became an internet sensation.
But despite its high price tag, Salvator Mundi has been plagued with provenance and authenticity questions since its unlikely "rediscovery." The painting exists in a blurry zone -- stuck between being a bona fide Leonardo and a vastly less valuable Leonardo workshop piece.
Now, Salvator Mundi is MIA. There's no sign of it. It hasn't been seen since Christie's auction in 2017. Is it really an autograph (pure) Leonardo? I don't think so ... But, if it is, what happened to the painting?
The Lost Salvator Mundi
By any objective measure, the Salvator Mundi saga is quite astonishing. It's something you'd expect in a Hollywood movie. A painting that was not definitively known to exist was somehow "found." It's a smoke and mirrors tale, almost more theory than fact.
The painting, which may date from 1500, was supposedly commissioned by France's Louis XII. It depicts a common Renaissance theme -- a picture of blue robed Christ with one hand raised in benediction and the other holding a diaphanous sphere. Some experts consider it a religious counterpart to the Mona Lisa or the male Mona Lisa.
It was considered a "lost" Leonardo for many decades. Prior to its rediscovery, no Leonardo painting had been found since 1909. The last one was the Benois Madonna, which reemerged at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
A Tangled and Rather Dubious Provenance
Leonardo's workshop produced up to 20 heads of Christ style paintings. Most art historians believe this particular Salvator Mundi is the best of the 20. The painting is first mentioned in an inventory by one of Leonardo’s students in 1525. After that, it disappeared for over a century.
In 1649, there's a mention of a painting that might be Salvator Mundi in an inventory of Charles I's art collection. The inventory obliquely refers to "a peece of Christ done by Leonardo." This is hardly definitive language. Nor does it specify when or how the "peece" was acquired.
Some art historians point to a 1650 etching by Royalist Wenceslaus Hollar as proof that Salvator Mundi was in the royal collection. It's inscribed: “Leonardo da Vinci painted the original from which Wenceslaus Hollar etched [this copy] in 1650."
This usually constitutes fairly good evidence of provenance. But it's unclear whether Hollar was based in France or Holland in the period around 1650. And there are some stylistic differences between the etching and Salvator Mundi -- the pronounced beard, the perspective of the eyes, a thinner face, stouter body, and different orbs.
There are myriad other paintings with Salvator Mundi iconography from which Hollar's etching could've been made. Dozens of copies hang in museums. One of these, in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, was definitely in Charles I's collection, as it bears the stamp CR (Carolus Rex). That painting could be the basis of the Hollar etching inscription.
Salvator Mundi again vanished from the historical record in the 18th century. There's no record of it from 1763 to 1900. This is a huge gap for purposes of provenance. The painting was apparently tossed around, or stuck in a closet, as if it had no value. (Or it didn't exist.)
Many stress that the actual provenance of Christies' Salvator Mundi really begins in 1900. That year, a Salvator Mundi type painting was acquired by Sir Francis Cook. It was heavily painted over and was attributed to Bernardino Luini, one of Leonardo's students.
In 1958, Salvator Mundi sold at Sotheby's for $57 to a New Orleans man, Warren Kuntz. A bargain, to be sure as even a Leonardo "workshop" painting is fairly valuable.
The Shocking "Discovery" of a Lost Leonardo Painting
In 2005, a pair of art dealers, Robert Simon and Alexander Parrish, spotted the damaged painting at a regional auction in New Orleans. Based on online previews, they decided it was "old," "intriguing," and might have some real value.
Gambling, they purchased it. The purchase price was less than $1,000. At the time, the dealers assumed it was a badly damaged Luini copy of a Leonardo Salvator Mundi. But the beautifully rendered hand gave then pause.
They brought the painting to Professor Dianne Dwyer Modestini of New York University for restoration. At that time, only 2 of the 15-20 known Leonardo paintings remained unaccounted for -- Leda and the Swan, a large scale mythological allegory, and Salvator Mundi.
The Restoration of Salvator Mundi
During the extensive (and no doubt expensive) restoration process, Simon visited Windsor Castle in England to inspect some of Leonardo’s preparatory sketches. The designs for the folds of fabric around Christ’s arms matched Simon's Salvator Mundi to some degree.
Originally a "doubter," Simon began to believe his painting might actually be a real Leonardo, not just a Leonardo workshop piece. He tentatively picked a sales price of $100 million. But he needed the painting authenticated to secure that price. Simon began showing the gussied up painting to art scholars and authenticators.
The owners of Salvator Mundi were described vaguely as a "consortium." Their identity was a well-guarded secret. No doubt this was deliberate, so no one would know who stood to profit from the painting's rebranding as a Leonardo.
In 2008, a panel of distinguished Leonardo experts, including Martin Kemp and David Brown, met informally. They reputedly declared that the painting was a genuine Leonardo.
What began as a gamble, now seemed like a massive discovery. There was a lot of excitement and rush to judgment. It's reported that, among those present, only Carmen Bambach, the Met's Leonardo expert, dissented.
The Auction History of Salvator Mundi
The 2008 attribution won Salvator Mundi a spot in a Leonardo retrospective, Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, at the National Gallery of London in 2011.
This was a controversial move. Museums aren't supposed to exhibit artworks that are on the market. Such a display could confer the National’s imprimatur on the painting's authenticity and radically change its value.
Later, other museums declined to buy the painting because of its high price tag, extensive renovation, and skepticism about whether it was an autograph Leonardo. Eventually though, in 2013, Salvator Mundi sold, in secret, for $80 million to Swiss billionaire and art dealer Yves Bouvier.
Bouvier, in turn, flipped the painting and resold it to Russian billionaire, Dmitry E. Rybolovlev for $127.5 million. Quite a markup, eh? That spawned litigation between Bouvier, Rybolovlev, and the "consortium."
Rybolovlev himself is no angel. You may recall that he bought some of Trump's overpriced Mar-A-Lago units. He allegedly purchased Salvatore Mundi to squirrel away assets from his wife during a divorce proceeding. Rybolovlev then consigned Salvator Mundi to his storage locker for the superrich: a tax free port in Switzerland, hidden away from the public.
Four years later, Rybolovlev decided to sell. Christies launched an ambitious marketing campaign for the sale of the "once in a lifetime" Leonardo Salvator Mundi.
Christies placed the heralded painting in a theatrical spotlight, in an auction for contemporary art, which typically garners higher and more aggressive prices than old masters. Salvator Mundi was extravagantly rolled out and toured major cities. It was pitched as 100% authentic and akin to discovering a "new planet."
On November 15, 2017, Christies sold Salvator Mundi for $450 million.
Who Actually Owns Salvator Mundi?
The actual owner of Salvator Mundi is a mystery. An anonymous buyer purchased the painting on behalf of Crown Prince Mohammed of Saudi Arabia. However, the Saudi prince has never publicly confirmed nor denied that he's the owner.
Shortly thereafter, and without comment, the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism confirmed its acquisition of the painting. In December 2017, Christie’s confirmed the Louvre Abu Dhabi, whose mission is to “see humanity in a new light," had received the painting.
In June 2018, the Louvre Abu Dhabi announced with great fanfare that it had somehow acquired -- no one knows precisely how (purchased, gifted, loaned?) -- Salvator Mundi. The painting would anchor the museum's permanent collection and "be our gift to the world." A public release date was set, September 18, 2018.
However, on September 3, 2018, via a tweet, the Louvre Abu Dhabi abruptly cancelled the exhibition without explanation. It was never rescheduled. It's a no show.
In 2019, Paris' Louvre announced a forthcoming Leonardo da Vinci show in the fall, celebrating 500 years in Leonardo's death. The Louvre wanted to include Salvatore Mundi in the exhibition and asked to borrow it. It received no response from the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Right now, according to museum officials, neither the Louvre Abu Dhabi or the Louvre in Paris know where the painting is located. It's possible that the Louvre Abu Dhabi is playing its card close to the vest. It may not want to show the painting without a valid contract of ownership.
When the Louvre show opened on October 24, 2019, the biggest question was answered. Despite its price tag, the contentious Salvator Mundi was nowhere in sight. Louvre director Chris Dercon has said it's not too late and that the "doors are still open."
A Wringer of Restorations: Restored or Repainted?
Professor Modestini is a world renowned art conservator. No one disputes her ability. Yet, her work on Salvator Mundi has been controversial because the painting itself is so controversial. How much was repainted, 5% or a much larger percentage?
When Salvator Mundi was brought to Modestini, time had ravaged the painting and it was in poor condition. It was broken into five separate pieces and had a major crack. Worms had tunneled through the walnut. Modestini viewed the damaged face as a "clown's mask." But she still thought it had "potential."
Once cleaned, Salvator Mundi could have been left raw, modestly restored, or completely restored. Conservation in the art world is a hot topic and sore spot.
Some think total cleaning is appropriate, allowing the painting to live. Some think it inappropriately wipes away the vestiges of time and the paint and intent of the artist.
The two art dealers and Modestini opted for a full Sistine Chapel style restoration of Salvator Mundi. That was deemed "best for the painting." And, of course, it would sell better restored.
So, Modestini stripped away the crusty overpainting, repaired damage, did substantial in-painting, and filled in the blanks. Years of work were required to make Salvator Mundi presentable.
It was all done in secret. No independent scientists or conservators were let in. Apparently, the smart thing to do was to hide the painting for awhile. But that made the quality of the original difficult for others to assess objectively.
As a result, there have been a slew of allegations that it was over-cleaned and over-restored. Experts wonder, how many of the remaining brushstrokes were actually done by Leonardo? Does it look more like a Leonardo after than before? Did Modestini save or destroy the work?
Personally, I'm wondering what on earth happened to the beard that was still there after cleaning and is seen in all the copies?
The Painting's Two Thumbs
One revelation from Modestini's cleaning was that JC's hand appeared to have two thumbs -- one in a curved position consistent with the Salvator Mundi copies and another earlier, more upright, thumb that the artist painted over.
The extra thumb was significant. It was evidence that the painting might be an original Leonardo. Modestini thought it was a trace — or a "pentimento" (from the Italian word for “repent") of an earlier version of the painting.
Pentimenti are an indication (not indubitable proof) that a painting isn’t a copy. A copier only replicates the "surface of a picture, not the skeleton underneath.” He or she wouldn't have access to an artist’s creative process.
Professor Modestini painted over the thumb she believed Leonardo didn't want before anyone else examined it. One wonders if it would've been better to leave the two thumbs, as authentic evidence of Leonardo's thought process. Leonardo expert Kemp noted that "both thumbs are rather better than the one painted by Dianne."
Some experts argue that the painting was so extensively restored that it's now as much a work of Professor Modestini as Leonardo.
The Debate Over Authenticity and Attribution
From the start, there were skeptics. They didn't cotton to Salvator Mundi's patchwork provenance and heavily made up surface. And they didn't let up.
There was reason for doubt. Leonardo was a perfectionist who created very few original pieces. Collaborative efforts between Leonardo and his assistants were common. A visitor to Leonardo's studio in 1501 reported: “Two of his assistants make copies, and he from time to time adds some touches to them.” That's what some 16th century clients wanted -- a facsimile of a Leonardo that cost less.
Moreover, Leonardo's other pantings have contemporaneous documentation substantiating that he was working on them. For Salvator Mundi, there's not a footnote or trace anywhere in the record. Not even in Leonardo's personal diary. The only evidence is that Leonardo may have intended to paint it (the Windsor drapery studies).
The Louvre Abu Dhabi’s failure to exhibit Salvator Mundi only revived and amplified existing doubts. When a painting is missing or its ownership is unclear, it's fashionable to debunk its merits. Critics want the "oxygen of public display."
The Salvator Mundi Skeptics
In 2019, art historian Ben Lewis published a blockbuster book, The Last Leonardo: The Secret Lives of the World's Most Expensive Painting. He asserts that the Salvator Mundi's provenance has “too many plot holes." He characterized the painting as "a post-truth Leonardo." Lewis concedes that it was likely painted by Leonardo's workshop, but not entirely by the master himself.
In Vulture magazine, art critic Jerry Saltz (not an old master expert) colorfully described the painting as “a dreamed-up version of a missing da Vinci.” He claimed it was "inert, varnished, lurid," and that it looked "simultaneously new and old.” He also believes the work was "flat" and lacked Leonardo's compositional dynamism.
Dr. Carmen Bambach, the author of a 2019 for volume study on Leonardo, says that there were, at most, only “small re-touchings” by the master himself. She believes Salvator Mundi was mostly painted by Leonardo’s assistant, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio. In her opinion, the painting "was not a good investment.”
Anticipating the Louvre exhibition last October, another expert on Leonardo’s paintings, Jacques Franck, sent letters to French president, Emmanuel Macron. He raised doubts about the attribution and wanted the painting properly designated.
According to rumors, there was a schism between Louvre experts on how to attribute the paintings. But, most likely, the Louvre planned to label Salvator Mundi as "the work of Leonardo's studio," not an autograph original. That would've cause the painting's value to plummet to as low as $1.5 million, an ignominious and embarrassing fate.
On top of all that, there's speculation that Salvator Mundi was altered between its debut at the National Gallery in 2011 and its box office sale at Christies in 2017. For example, in 2011, some experts criticized the draping on the left shoulder. The same draping looked different, more Leonardo-like, by 2017.
Christie admits that alterations were made in the 5 years prior to sale. Modestini suggests that the change in the folds was the byproduct of a natural drying process.
But if the allegations are true, they suggest that Salvator Mundi was a manufactured, for profit, work in progress. If so, that's absurd! The paint was still wet on the auction date. In general, scholarship is moving away from the 2008 attribution to Leonardo.
The Advocate for the Authenticity of Salvator Mundi
Martin Kemp is perhaps the most vociferous defender of Salvator Mundi's status as an "ineffable" Leonardo. He’s devoted nearly his entire career to the Renaissance master. He's an emeritus research professor at Oxford University and esteemed worldwide.
Kemp has also published a 2019 book on Leonardo, the third one this year. It's the thing to do these days, amidst all the publicity, hubbub, and chaos over Salvator Mundi. Cash in.
Kemp first clapped eyes on Salvator Mundi at the critical National Gallery exhibition in 2011. He experienced a "frission." Kemp said he immediately knew it was a da Vinci: “It had that kind of presence that Leonardos have … that uncanny strangeness that the later Leonardo paintings manifest.”
In support of his claim, Kemp cites some signature Leonardo elements -- the vortex hair style, the dynamism of the blessing hand, the extra thumb, the sfumato flesh tones, and the underdrawings. Nonetheless, given the painting's disappearance and ambiguous ownership, Kemp is worried about public access.
It's worth noting that Martin Kemp also advocated for another highly disputed painting as an authentic Leonardo. And wrote a 2010 book about it, La Bella Principessa: the Story of the New Masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci.
The problem is that almost no one agrees with Kemp. The painting hasn't won over the art establishment. It's not been shown in any serious museum. It was excluded from the 2011 show at the National Gallery, which featured Salvator Mundi. There's a reason.
The so-called La Bella Principessa has no provenance before the 20th century. Most think the painting is a lifeless German fake. A convicted art forger, Shaun Greenhalgh, even claimed credit for the disputed painting. No one believes him either. The painting is apparently unsold, stuck in one of Bouvier's freeports.
Kemp has lost some credibility.
Destroyed or in Hiding?
The world's most expensive painting is now MIA. Where could it be? It's a geopolitical mystery.
Some American journalists were surprised when Salvator Mundi was purchased by a Muslim, especially one from a country like Saudi Arabia where Wahhabism predominates. Wahhabism generally holds that religious art, and the depiction of human beings, is blasphemous. The Louvre Abu Dhabi itself is conspicuously cleansed of any painting that might offend.
Prince Mohammed himself is also under suspicion. His aggression and impulsiveness are well known. He was recently caught murdering journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It's not such a far stretch to think that he might destroy an offensive painting, just for sport. Especially if it's deemed a fake.
But a simple answer may be more accurate.
It's possible that Prince Mohammed simply reneged on his gift to the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Always attracted to expensive bling, he may want to keep the buzzy painting for his own museum. Or, it could be stashed in a tax free zone of Switzerland pending a decision on his part.
Alternatively, the prince could be hiding Salvator Mundi out of sheer embarrassment. He may be mortified by the intense criticism levied against his uber expensive prestige painting.
After all, no one wants to own a record setting Leonardo painting that's been demoted to a "workshop" simulacrum. That's probably why the painting never visited the Louvre in Paris in October. The painting would be immediately devalued if it was labeled "workshop."
A month ago, another possibility emerged. In June 2019, Artnet News reported that Salvator Mundi was on a boat. That rumor has since been debunked, with experts guessing that it's in Switzerland.
Can Science Solve the Mystery?
The orb in Salvator Mundi is also mysterious. It's supposed to symbolize the earth.
Originally it was criticized as non Leonardo-esque because it wasn't sufficiently realistic, not reflecting light accurately. Leonardo was fascinated with how glass interacted with light. But the critics may be wrong.
Computer scientists from the University of California created a virtual copy of Salvator Mundi. They determined that, if the orb was depicted as hollow, that would explain the minimal distortion in Christ's robe. This is essentially what Kemp has argued, saying the orb isn't supposed to be a photograph.
Art World Misanthropes Are Happy
Names don't come much bigger than Leonardo. To find a new, heretofore undiscovered, Leonardo trophy is to strike the purest vein of gold. But this is likely just fool's gold.
In the sordid tale of Salvator Mundi there's plenty to please art world misanthropes -- fishy provenance, top secret restorations leaving hardly a brushstroke left of Leonardo, and Christies' rapturous and emotional promotion of the so-called "last da Vinci." Then, poof, the disappearance.
It's all a bit much, this frog to prince tale, this fantasy of found genius. Salvator Mundi is essentially a parable of highbrow greed. A revered artist turned into a hyped up tool for generating cash.
Salvator Mundi has been owned by a Swiss tycoon, a Russian oligarch, art dealers, and Saudi royalty. There's no solid evidence of whether it's an autograph Leonardo or not. Only the opinion of a few, now dwindling, authenticators. It's even unclear who the real owner is, at this juncture.
The painting personifies how the art world works. How dealers, museums, auction houses, and the global rich can conspire to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear for pure profit.
What's clear is that the Louvre Abu Dhabi's supposed "gift to the world" definitely isn't a gift. It likely isn't even a real Leonardo. Even if the painting's somehow real, it's been secreted away where, sadly, no living person can see, experience, or evaluate it.
I almost hope the world was hoodwinked by Christies' spin. And that Prince Mohammed is a sucker, sitting on his fancy yacht with a lemon.
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