Do you know the story behind the most expensive painting ever sold in the history of the art world?
The ‘Salvator Mundi’ is a depiction of Christ that sold at Christies in 2017 for $450 million, following years of intense scrutiny about whether or not it was a lost work of Leonardo da Vinci.
A recent documentary ’The Lost Leonardo’, tells the journey of its re-emergence in 2005 at an unlikely estate sale in New Orleans to that record shattering auction at Christies to an anonymous buyer (now known to be a surrogate for the Saudi Crown Prince), without the debate ever really being settled.
The most fascinating detail in the documentary’s dramatic telling is the origin of the attribution to da Vinci by professor and conservator Dianne Modestini. She was the first professional to work on the painting, cleaning the work by removing layers of caked-on varnish and overpainting.
When Modestini reached Jesus’ mouth, she noticed striking similarities to the lips of Leonardo’s most famed work, the Mona Lisa. Soon the painting began being referred to as the male Mona Lisa, an association that many criticized as a marketing ploy to drive up the paintings value.
Can you see the similarities?
The debate over the Salvator Mundi’s authenticity partly stems from the improbability of it being found. It had disappeared from the collection of Charles I following his execution in 1649 and only reappeared in the early 20th century – sold then as a work by Bernardino Luini, a follower and assistant of Leonardo.
There remain art historians such Leonardo scholar Mathew Landrus, who attribute the painting to Luini, believing da Vinci sketched the initial design and left the bulk of the work to his studio assistants – a middle ground that many are overlooking:
“Leonardo has worked on the painting, and I think that’s important to recognize. We tend to think in black and white—one or the other, when it comes to attribution, but that’s definitely not the tradition. The tradition was to get help from the studio.”
As for the future of this controversial work?
No-one has seen the Salvator Mundi since its record breaking purchase. In 2018 it was set to be exhibited at The Louvre Abu Dhabi, but its unveiling was canceled at the last minute with no explanation.
It is currently believed to be on a yacht owned by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and yet no-one has seen it since its sale.
Once again, true to its history, the painting has disappeared out of the public’s sight.
Continue the Story
For the inside story behind the Salvator Mundi, watch The Lost Leonardo documentary on Netflix.
Through painstaking research Ben Lewis takes the story further back from Leonardo’s studio in Renaissance Italy through the ages until the painting emerged from obscurity in this book.
A fascinating interview on The Art Law podcast with Robert Simon about his discovery of the Salvator Mundi.