Salvator Mundi

Sharon Lorenzo provides the history for this record setting sale.

At a celebrated sale in Christie’s auction house in New York, this portrait by Leonardo Da Vinci from 1500 AD sold for $450.3 million dollars on November 15, 2017. A detailed examination of the ownership history of this work, the various forensic results of testing by conservators, and the art historical consensus of the experts brought this picture to a world record sale to an anonymous bidder.

On December 7, 2017, The New York Times revealed the identity of the new owner of this work as a member of the Saudi royal family, Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al- Saud. This purchase is viewed by some as more of a trophy than an attempt to begin a collection of old master paintings, but only time will tell . Following the acquisition two years ago of a 440 foot ocean yacht for $500 million dollars, Prince Bader is noted as one of Saudi’s rising entrepreneurs who is active in the recycling and waste management business. He is a friend and peer of the thirty-two year old ruler of the Saudi family at present, Mohammed bin Salman. Unknown to Christie’s business team until the day before the sale, they required that Prince Bader provide a $100 million deposit to qualify for the auction.[i] The Wall Street Journal update on this data is that as of December 8, there is speculation that Bader was a front for the Saudi ruler himself. Either way the picture is en route to the Saudi family archives

Many ecclesiastical experts feel that Da Vinci chose this subject directly from the Gospel of John, 4:14, which reads, “ And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his son as the Savior of the World.” Art historians have noted that the images of Jesus as the father of the world are seen in early mosaics such as this one in Istanbul’s magnificent church, Hagia Sophia, where we can see Jesus with his hand raised in blessing. It is a work in mosaic from about 1261 AD.

Most experts assume that Leonardo either traveled to this region or saw how another of his peers, the Italian artist Giotto di Bondone, also highlighted the idea of Jesus as the Savior of the World in works such as this one from the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh where it is the center portrait of the Peruzzi family altarpiece, painted about 1310.

The recently published biography of Leonardo da Vinci by noted author Walter Isaacson is a thoughtful chronology that examines each artwork of the master in historical succession. As the number one book on the non-fiction list of the New York Times, it is useful to note that while he is not a scholarly art historian, Isaacson has brought attention to Da Vinci as a genius in his time. The book details his fascination with science, technology, optics and even the physics of water flows and bridge construction. Attendants of a lengthy examination of this book at the Aspen Institute last summer enjoyed hearing the dialogue between someone who had explored Da Vinci as a biographer with all the noted art scholars who had devoted their entire career to the study of Da Vinci’s work.

The three legs of the stool of artistic authenticity today – provenance, forensics and connoisseurship, bring together the art historians and forensic scientists who examine the canvas with x-rays and pigment analysis. Even DNA samples of some artists are found in painting examinations. In 2007 Dianne Dwyer Modestini who is a Kress fellow in the Institute of Fine Arts department of conservation in New York examined this picture. Her x-rays revealed that the right hand of Jesus had been moved in the under drawing, a practice known to Leonardo as he was consumed with perfect posture in his works. Secondly, there was a finger print over the left eye of the Savior as if the artist had moved the paint to make the image appear more subtle and diffuse. The walnut panel was a classic background employed by Da Vinci on which he used oils and his secret sauce of egg whites and linseed to refine the movement of the paint on this surface. The Salvator was subsequently shown in the National Gallery of London in 2011 beside the picture he painted with portraits of Jesus and John the Baptist as children known as the Virgin on the Rocks.

The study of the provenance of the work is the third piece of the story as archival research revealed the historical trajectory of the ownership of this picture. It appears, according to Isaacson, that Salvator Mundi was painted in 1500 and still remained in the inventory of his lover known as Salai after Leonardo’s death in 1519. Some speculate that it was a commission by the French king Louis XII who brought Da Vinci to France where he died in 1519. In 1649 the picture was noted in the inventory of the English King, Charles I and then his successor Charles II whose widow commissioned an etching of the work by artist, Wendeslaus Hollar. There is little known again until 1900 when a London art collector, Sir Charles Robinson, owned it until he sold it in 1958 for 45 English pounds.

In 2005 it was sold again to a consortium of New York dealers for $10,000 who then passed it to a Swiss Dealer, Yves Bouvier, for $ 80 million dollars in 2013 based on the authentication at the Institute of Fine Arts. Bouvier sold it to a Russian executive Dmitry Rybolovlev for $127 million in that same year. Dmitry consigned it for the November sale at Christies in 2017. From its royal beginnings, we can see how the work became such a curiosity that 27,000 visitors lined up to see it in London, Hong Kong, San Francisco and New York before the November sale.

For a work of art measuring 26 by 18 inches, it is critical to look at how Da Vinci rendered the figure with a mysterious stare, elusive smile, cascading curls and a hazy softness.[1] Richard Feigen, a noted old master art dealer, says the face was drastically over cleaned at some point to make it look almost ghost like. Scholars Martin Kemp, Carmen Bambach and Nicholas Penny concurred that the rendering of the globe in Jesus’ hand was a masterful object in which Da Vinci included crystals to highlight the glass and its resonance. Four active bidders at the auction made the evening into a glamour event attended by noted collectors such as Eli Broad from Los Angeles and Martin Margulies from Miami.

There is only one portrait by Da Vinci in the United States at this time in the National Gallery in Washington, DC. A gift in 1967 from Paul Mellon, it is a portrait of the 16 year-old daughter of a Renaissance banker posed in three quarters profile in 1474 in front of a juniper bush. As a precursor to the later Mona Lisa, we see the pensive Ginevra de Benci about to be married off to a friend of her father.

The picture painted just before the Salvator Mundi is a Leonardo portrait owned by the Louvre Museum in France. It is a portrait of the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, a wealthy Italian noble, and it is known as La Belle Ferroniere from 1490.[2] It is being lent through a new joint venture to the Louvre museum in Abu Dhabi where it will be seen along with other French treasures for a decade.

The only recent transaction involving a Leonardo painting was the purchase by the national government of Poland in 2016 of the Lady with Ermine from the Czartoryski family for $105 million dollars. Stolen by Hitler and hidden in a salt mine until it was recovered by the Monuments Men of the US army after the end of World War II, it also has had a celebrated career in the art market! Perhaps like the Salvator Mundi, it will be enjoyed and applauded by a new audience with the richness of devotion and attention that these masterful works deserve as a monumental legacy left to us by Da Vinci, a genius of his time.

1David Kirkpatrick, “Mystery of the $450 million Leonardo is Solved.” New York Times, December 7, 2017, p. 1.

[1] Walter Isaacson, Leonardo Da Vinci, 2017, p. 329.

[2] Ferroniere is an Italian word for the jewel on her forehead.