The Mystery of the DaVinci

Leonardo DaVinci, Salvator Mundi, c. 1500, oil on walnut, 45.4 x 65.6 cm, after restoration
Leonardo DaVinci, Salvator Mundi, c. 1500, oil on walnut, 45.4 x 65.6 cm, after restoration

Leonardo DaVinci’s painting Salvator Mundi (c. 1500) shattered past auction records. Including the buyer’s premium, the painting reached a whopping $450.3 million. This is more than double the previous record which belonged to Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger which sold for $175.3 million. To put it further into perspective, the previous record for an Old Master painting was $76.6 million.

The painting went for such an impressive amount given the rarity of DaVinci paintings. There are currently less than 20 paintings attributed to DaVinci’s hand, and all of them are in museum collections which makes them completely unavailable to the public. The immense obscurity of the piece combined with the importance of DaVinci for Western art could explain the massive cost but is there more to it?

Salvator Mundi on display in New York ahead of the 2017 auction. Getty Images
Salvator Mundi on display in New York ahead of the 2017 auction. Getty Images

DaVinci’s works are often revered for their mysterious nature. Salvator Mundi is imbued with this intense emotion that causes viewers to feel deeply. The entire situation around the Salvator Mundi may have some of DaVinci’s characteristic mystery shrouding it as well.

Did DaVinci Paint Even It?

For many years, Salvator Mundi was thought to be a copy of a long lost original, DaVinci piece. It was in terrible condition with extensive areas of missing paint and in other areas it was overpainted during conservation. The conservator, Dianne Modestini, who performed “exquisite” work restoring the painting has said, “If this had once been a Leonardo, is it still a Leonardo?”

2006-2007 Photograph after Cleaning
Salvator Mundi, 2006-2007 Photograph after Cleaning

Based on the condition alone, you wouldn’t expect this work to be the highest selling work ever, but when you also consider the iffy DaVinci attribution, the price becomes even more unbelievable.

The subject matter itself is very basic, there are many versions of this specific motif created by DaVinci’s workshop and other artists’ workshops alike. In most cases, this work would not be important enough for a master painter to devote his precious time on. Usually works like this would fall into the hands of his apprentices.

School of Leonardo DaVinci, Salvator Mundi, c. 1503, Museo Diocesano, Napoli, Naples
School of Leonardo DaVinci, Salvator Mundi, c. 1503, Museo Diocesano, Napoli, Naples

Some still think there are aspects of this work that are just too masterful to be attributed to anything but DaVinci’s own hand. The National Gallery in London included this work in an exhibition on DaVinci, sealing its attribution and making it the only DaVinci painting for private sale and increasing its value by astronomical proportions.

Even with the painting exhibited in a prestigious institution, many scholars do not agree on its DaVinci attribution. Some have agreed that parts of the work may be from his hand, but there is still a great deal of work done by his apprentices.

So the painting is in bad condition and art historians do not have a consensus that this work was done by DaVinci. How did this piece sell for so much? Why would anyone ignore professionals and just purchase the piece anyway?

The Record Breaking Auction

Image from Christie’s Auction Room. Credit: Peter Foley/EPA-EFE/Rex/Shutterstock
Image from Christie’s Auction Room. Credit: Peter Foley/EPA-EFE/Rex/Shutterstock

Christie’s, New York location auctioned off Salvator Mundi during their Post War & Contemporary Art Evening Sale on November 15, 2017. Though not actually part of that category, this work had a high value that coincided more with pieces in this sale than say, an average Old Master auction.

The addition of this work also increased the overall numbers for this sale, making it more interesting and catch more media attention. Salvator Mundi had already been a great Public Relations move for the auction house They toured it around for thousands of viewers. Christies even made a promo video that included candid videos of viewers tearing up over the wonder of laying eyes on a DaVinci work.

Image of auctioneer and Global President Jussi Pylkkänen with Salvator Mundi. Credit: Getty Images
Image of auctioneer and Global President Jussi Pylkkänen with Salvator Mundi. Credit: Getty Images

Jussi Pylkkänen, Global President of Christie’s, began the auction at 75 million dollars. Within two minutes the bidding had already jumped to a staggering 180 million. A bid war began between two buyers with bids going from 332 to 350 million and then 370 to 400 million dollars in one bid. The final hammer came down at $450,312,500, including the buyer’s premium in a dramatic, world record lot sale.

The sale itself was almost as dramatic as what came after, which seems like a movie. Moving the work involved hiring a lawyer, decoy trucks and a plan that included information black out: only a few people really knew every detail of the artworks move. This all doesn’t even begin to cover the insurance issues that surrounded a work that is, well, completely irreplaceable and unbelievably monetarily valuable.

Where is it Now?

Image of Mohammad bin Salman, owner of Salvator Mundi
Image of Mohammad bin Salman, owner of Salvator Mundi

At first, the buyer’s identity remained confidential from the public but it is now known that Salvator Mundi was purchased by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. A purchase like this would help establish a rich, young, lesser known political figure as a major cultural player. In the gulf states, purchasing art of this valuable nature is a projection of the private individual’s own power. This could explain why a private individual would spend so much on a single piece.

On the other hand, some may think there is something more sinister going on. The art market is a good place to store money securely and relatively secretly. As an art historian, Ben Lewis states, once art becomes part of an “asset class” millions of dollars worth of art are put into tax free havens and hidden from the world with no purpose greater than accruing money. For the rich owners this is wonderful, for the greater public this is a great, cultural loss.

People Visiting the Lovre Museum in Abu Dhabi, November 11, 2017, opening day. Credit: AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili
People Visiting the Lovre Museum in Abu Dhabi, November 11, 2017, opening day. Credit: AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili

Salvator Mundi was supposed to be displayed by the Louvre Abu Dhabi but the exhibition has been postponed indefinitely. No one has laid eyes on this work since the November 2017 auction. Since then, the conservator Dianne Modestini says she received a call asking how to transport it to The Louvre, Paris but this never happened. Maybe it was transported somewhere else or maybe it hasn’t moved.

Where could this mysterious piece be hiding?

For one, it could be in one of these massive, Swiss art warehouses increasing in tax free value for the owner. Maybe the owner brought it to his own home.

There is even a seemingly insane possibility that may be more than a rumor. The priceless DaVinci may be floating in the ocean on Mohhamad bin Salman’s yacht. This should immediately raise red flags considering the lack of climate control and the danger of having it on a sinkable vessel. It does not seem like any insurance company would cover it under these circumstances but information two people involved have claimed that it is on the boat anyway.

Mohammad bin Salman’s SuperYacht
Mohammad bin Salman’s SuperYacht

Believe it or not, it is a trend for billionaires to outfit their superyachts with priceless art. Since they are private clients and purchased it themselves, they can really do anything they want with their art, even if it means hiding it from the world and hitting them with flying champagne corks during parties.

Conclusion

From beginning to end, Leonardo DaVinci’s Salvator Mundi is an artwork cloaked in mystery and secrets. Between questioning its attribution, to the reasoning behind the massive price tag, to where it is now, the situation itself seems like a mystery novel full of dramatic conspiracies.

Salvator Mundi on display prior to 2017 auction.
Salvator Mundi on display prior to 2017 auction.

Salvator Mundi on display prior to 2017 auction.

Maybe someday there will be more answers but for now, only the owners have the option to gaze upon this possible art historical masterpiece. Maybe this is a selfish way to keep a piece of culture for themselves. Maybe it’s a way to keep people from reattributing the artwork to DaVinci’s school, ruining its monetary value and becoming an immense loss for the owner.

I am not sure the world will ever know the truth but it sure raises more questions than answers.

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