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The continuing mystery surrounding da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi


School of Leonardo da Vinci | Public Domain

John Burger - published on 07/17/19

Sold two years ago for $450 million, the painting has not been seen since.

The last time Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of Christ known as “Salvator Mundi” was seen in public was in November 2017, when it sold at auction for a record $450 million. The buyer was identified as Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Farhan Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, 32, and later it was revealed that he was acting on behalf of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The painting apparently was purchased on behalf of the Louvre Abu Dhabi museum in the United Arab Emirates.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi said it was planning to put the painting on display in September 2018. But then the museum postponed the showing without explanation. The museum has been mum about the painting’s whereabouts or the institution’s plans.  Experts have theorized that the work is being held in Geneva, in a secretive tax-free warehouse. Some even speculate that it’s aboard Muhammad bin Salman’s private yacht.

But no one seems to know why the painting’s new owner or owners are not coming forward with an explanation. There is as much enigma surrounding “Salvator Mundi” as there is with Leonardo’s more famous “Mona Lisa.”

There also continues to be debate about whether the painting is indeed a genuine da Vinci, and if it is, why is was restored and whether the restoration hides something significant about Leonardo’s work.

“Salvator Mundi,” which is thought to have been painted for King Louis XII of France and was in possession of Kings Charles I and Charles II, went missing for a number of years. When it turned up, it was badly damaged. The Guardian newspaper has published a high-definition image of it from when it was being restored by artist Dianne Dwyer Modestini.

CNN pointed out that much of the speculation around why the painting has remained hidden centers on its attribution. For centuries, the network said, “Salvator Mundi” was thought to have been either the work of one of Leonardo’s assistants or a copy. By the time art dealers Robert Simon and Alexander Parrish, who bought it in 2005 for under $10,000, took it to Modestini, it had been heavily overpainted. In 2011, the National Gallery included it in a comprehensive showing of Leonardo’s paintings, but only after a panel of experts had authenticated it to be a da Vinci. There were good arguments for that, CNN pointed out:

  • the skillful depiction of Christ’s hand, raised in blessing;
  • the sfumato painting technique used on his face;
  • the use of pigments and panels consistent with the Master’s work.

And then there was the “pentimento.” That’s a term used by art historians, meaning a rethinking or second thought. In this case, it was the thumb on Christ’s right hand. Modestini had uncovered two thumbs in one. Apparently, the artist went back to paint it in a different way. For some experts, that’s confirmation that the work is an original da Vinci, for why would a copyist have second thoughts?

The painting was resold in 2013 for $80 million, and then in three years time for $400 million plus $50 million in fees—the most anyone has ever paid for a work of art.

But a number of experts theorize that the painting has Leonardo’s hand in it, but only a minimum, and that most of it was executed by workshop assistants. If that is the case, its real value might be as low as $1.5 million, according to art critic Ben Lewis, author of the new book The Last Leonardo. Lewis speculates that its current owners, who paid many times that amount, may be keeping it out of public view to avoid any further scrutiny.

For Lewis, “Salvator Mundi” is, right now, “the most beautiful question mark that’s ever been painted.”

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