Leonardo’s Paintings:  What’s in a Price?

There are about 20 paintings by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) believed to exist today.  A precise number is impossible because there is a more or less constant stream of disputed attributions and recent attributions due to scholarship and technological advances in studying artwork. There are also studio works that Leonardo may or may not have had a hand in.  None of his paintings is signed.  The small number of surviving paintings is due in part to da Vinci’s sometimes disastrous experimentation with new techniques, his chronic procrastination, and, of course, lost works.

Most of his paintings are in major museums, including several at the Uffizi Gallery and several at the Louvre.  There is only one on public view in the Americas.  Ginevra de’ Benci is an oil-on-wood portrait of a Florentine aristocrat possibly painted to commemorate her marriage.  It was acquired by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, in 1967, for $5 million—a record at the time—from the princely house of Liechtenstein.

Recently another da Vinci painting came on the market.  Salvator Mundi, which depicts Christ as savior of the world, was sold at auction by a private owner for $450 million, the most expensive work of art sold to date.  The buyer was a Saudi prince.

Salvator Mundi has a complicated history.  Leonardo da Vinci supposedly painted it in France for Louis XII around 1500.  After it was believed lost for centuries, it was found in the early 2000s and sold for first time for $10,000 in 2005. From then on—once restored and authenticated—it was bought and sold by collectors and art dealers for higher and higher prices.  Then it came to the auction house Christie’s where the price far surpassed Picasso’s Women of Algiers, which sold for $179.4 million in 2015.

The enormous sum at auction is even more astounding because there are several highly respected art historians who question the painting’s authenticity and condition.  One Leonardo specialist claimed that “[da Vinci] preferred twisted movement.  It’s a good studio work with a little Leonardo at best, and it’s very damaged.”  Another said that the painting was “aggressively over cleaned…especially in the face and hair of Christ.”

The price is also remarkable at a time when the market for old masters is contracting because of collectors’ preference for contemporary art.   And the price also attests to the degree to which marketing drives the value of art.  Christie’s marketing campaign was unprecedented.   There were pre-auction viewings by 27,000 people in Hong Kong, London, San Francisco, and New York.  Christie’s enlisted an outside agency to advertise the work including the production of a video in which the presentation of the painting is likened to the “discovery of a new planet.”  Christie’s called the work “the last Da Vinci” and placed the artwork in the category of a contemporary sale, perhaps to try to circumvent the scrutiny of old masters’ experts.

But Salvator Mundi is not “the last Da Vinci” in private hands.  There are two paintings called “Madonna of the Yarnwinder”—one is known as the Buccleuch Madonna and the other as the Lansdowne Madonna.  They both have complicated histories.  But if one Yarnwinder came to auction and it was fully attributable to Leonardo, it would probably be the first $1 billion sale.

My friend, Anthony Panzera, an artist and art historian, read the above post and added the following interesting information about the two “Madoonna of the Yarnwinder” paintings:

“The first painting, owned by the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry, is housed with his collection in Drumlanrig Castle, Scotland.  The citation reads:

Madonna of the Yarnwinder

Workshop of Leonardo da Vinci

1501-1507 or later

The small panel, 48.3 x 36.9 cm, is extensively retouched and overpainted, with severe cracking, and with the “…pronounced distortions in the faces of the Virgin and the Child argue emphatically against an attribution to Leonardo.”

The second panel is referred to as the New York Madonna of the Yarnwinder; I’m not sure where the tile Lansdowne comes from.  It’s citation reads:

Madonna of the Yarnwinder

 Giacomo Salai

1501 – 1507

50 x 36.4

Salai was one the studio assistants and is a beneficiary in Leonardo’s will.  It is considered a workshop product with the possibility of Leonardo’s hand in the painting of the face.  The infra-red reflectography  “…make it clear that it is not a copy executed at a much later date.”  Meaning that parts of the painting (the landscape in the background including the design) was probably also by the hand of Leonardo.  Two contemporary letters, dated 1501 and 1509,  refer to a small panel of the same subject, but with a small basket of yarns on which the child’s feet (hence the name) is resting.  As neither of the current Yarnwinder paintings show any signs of the basket of yarns it must be assumed that the original painting by Leonardo is lost.

All we have to do now is to find that little painting.”

This information comes from the book:


1452 – 1519

The Complete Paintings and Drawings

by Frank Zollner

Taschen, London



This entry was posted in Abitudini, Arte, English, Firenze, Foto, Italia, Storia. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Leonardo’s Paintings:  What’s in a Price?

  1. Marie Panzera says:

    Dear Barbara,

    Thank you kindly for the citation. Your investigations into Leonardo have inspired me to continue the research on these two paintings. Also I am very impressed with your Italian. You put me to shame while I admire your industry.

    We look forward to seeing you at the wedding. Thank you also for inviting us to stay with you and Bill. We are in midst of making flight reservations and will have to arrive the day before the wedding on Thursday, July 5th to make sure we are there for the ceremony. We will leave on Sunday morning. I hope that is okay with you and that it is not an additional inconvenience.

    All the best,
    Anthony and Marie

    Sent from my iPad

  2. babbityjean says:

    Thank you both for your inspirations and kind words. We are looking forward to seeing you. Thursday through Sunday is perfectly fine.

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