“Salvator Mundi”, the most expensive painting in history and easily the most mysterious was painted by Leonardo da Vinci ( 1452–1519) nineteen years before his death, around 1500, .
Five hundred years later in 2017, Salvator Mundi made headlines when it sold for $450 million at Christie’s in New York, becoming the world’s most expensive painting. Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism released a statement saying it had acquired the work for the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
It’s widely thought that the record-breaking bid was made on behalf of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman by his friend, ally and fellow Saudi prince, Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud. Shortly after the story emerged in 2017, the Saudi Embassy in Washington published a statement claiming that Prince Badr had been asked to act as an intermediary for the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism, not the crown prince but bin Salman, often known as MBS, has himself never publicly confirmed or denied his role in the purchase.
The man selling the painting was the Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, who bought it in 2013 from Sotheby’s through Swiss dealer Yves Bouvier for $127.5 million. The sale became the subject of a continuing lawsuit against Bouvier — the Swiss fine art logistics operator and art broker. Bouvier is accused of defrauding Rybolovlev of hundreds of millions of dollars in commissions.
Leonardo’s masterpiece depicts Jesus Christ as “the Saviour of the World”. The provenance of “Salvator Mundi” is spotty but believed to have been commissioned around 1500, for either King Louis XII of France or his consort, Anne of Brittany.
Leonardo left Italy in the autumn of 1516 to settle in Amboise, invited by Francis I, and took with him all his notebooks (written backwards, mirror writing style, to protect his secrets) and three of his masterpieces: his St Anne, St John the Baptist and Mona Lisa (La Gioconda). At that time, paintings only illustrated sad faces, but this Mona Lisa fascinated with her smile and her eyes that seemed to follow a viewer.
In 1625, when Henrietta Maria of France, the youngest daughter of Henry IV, married King Charles I of England the painting found its way to England where it remained in the Queen’s Greenwich Palace private chambers. The painting then went missing for about 200 years until surfacing as part of Sir Frederick Cook art collections.
In 2017, Salvator Mundi made headlines when it sold for $450 million at Christie’s in New York for Mr. Rybolovlev, becoming the world’s most expensive painting. Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism released a statement saying it had acquired the work for the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Although the Emirati museum was scheduled to show the work last September, the display was canceled with no explanation. Desmond Shawe-Taylor, the surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures at the Royal Collection, admits that it is far from certain that the Christie’s/ Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi is the one once owned by England’s kings. He tells The Art Newspaper: “There are several references in inventories of the time of Charles I and Charles II to a Leonardo that might well be a Salvator Mundi, but it is unclear whether they refer to:
- the painting recently sold by Christie’s,
- the one now attributed to Giampietrino in the Pushkin Museum or
- another, unidentified picture.”
The Pushkin’s Salvator Mundi is on a panel that has a “CR” (Charles Rex) mark with a crown branded into the back of the poplar, which would seem to prove it was once owned by Charles I. This evidence, which was overlooked when the Abu Dhabi picture was sold by Christie’s, was noted in Ben Lewis’ book, “The Last Leonardo”. Lewis is convinced that the Pushkin painting raises serious doubts as to whether the Abu Dhabi picture is the one recorded in royal inventories.
Mr. Lewis writes, “It remains a mystery why neither Christie’s nor the National Gllery mentioned Bass’ “Lord or the Pushkin Salvator Mundi at least to explain why the two works did not undermine the provenance of their own painting.Whether this was an innocent oversight or a deliberate omission of the facts, which could have weakened the the provenance narrative and the commercial value of their Salvador Mundi remains to be discovered”, a discovery that could have significant risks for the value of the painting claimed to be in the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
At the conclusion of his “The Last Leonardo” Ben Lewis writes, “Short of a miracle, the Salvator Mundi will thus find itself floating forever in a sisyphean limbo, where efforts to climb the summit of art history and authenticate it permanently a Leonardo are eventually, ultimately, inevitably doomed to fail.”
High risks, indeed but risks that make a five hundred year old, restored painting even that much more intriguing and coveted.