Of questionable attribution, the Salvator Mundi was marketed as a Leonardo DaVinci painting and sold at Christie’s in late 2017 for a record $450 million. At the time of my post in early 2018, “Salvator Mundi: What’s in a Price?”, the purchaser was unknown. To document the many layers of mystery surrounding the painting are a Ben Lewis book called The Last Leonardo, two documentaries, The Lost Leonardo and Saviour for Sale, and countless articles. The saga continues with no end in sight.
The road began at an obscure New Orleans auction house in 2005 when two New York art dealers bought the painting for $1,175. They brought it to Dianne Modestini, a highly respected art restorer, who worked on the painting for years, removing centuries of grime and overpainting. She suspected that the painting might be a Da Vinci. (Later, others suspected that she “over-restored” it.)
A turning point came in 2011 when the National Gallery in London displayed the painting as an authentic Leonardo. Many experts decried the museum curator’s decision; however, the exhibition significantly contributed to legitimizing a shaky attribution. Two years later, Yves Bouvier, a Swiss art dealer, bought the painting from the New York dealers for $83 million, supposedly on behalf of a Russian oligarch named Dmitry Rybolovlev. Two days later he sold it to Rybolovlev for $127.5 million. Disputes and investigations into fraud ensued but have not been resolved.
Next stop: Christie’s, New York. The marketing video didn’t show the painting, but rather the awestruck faces of observers as if they were viewing Christ himself. Christie’s sale was also a highly staged drama ending with an anonymous buyer. Later it was revealed that the painting was bought on behalf of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia—the very same bin Salman found responsible by the CIA for ordering the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (It is ironic that to many in the Muslim world, it is an insult to possess or show any image of Allah or the Prophet Muhammad, much less an image from a competing religion.)
Next stop: Paris. The Louvre wanted to include Salvator Mundi in its exhibition of Leonardo’s 500th anniversary in 2019. An empty space on a wall in the museum awaited the painting that never arrived. The Louvre would not agree to bin Salman’s demand that his painting be displayed in the same room as the Mona Lisa, which would have suggested equal status. Secondly, bin Salman would only approve the loan to the Louvre if the painting was labeled an authentic Leonardo. A mysterious booklet—prepared by the Louvre for publication but never released—supposedly asserted that the piece was authentic. French government officials who knew the Louvre’s studies of the painting concluded that Leonardo had only contributed to the painting.
Where is the Salvator Mundi today? Nobody knows. Is it stashed in the Middle East to become the centerpiece of a new art museum, or is it hidden in a tax-free locker at an airport in Switzerland, or is it floating on the prince’s half-a-billion-dollar yacht sailing around the world?
Films, books, pop culture and podcasts today seem fascinated by art crimes. Is it because it is a look inside the genteel world of art that, in reality, is too often full of scandal with billionaires defrauding one another? Is it because there are so many platforms for information that anyone can be a sleuth trying to solve thefts and forgeries? Is it because, in the case of the Salvator Mundi, that everyone along the chain—from dealers to art historians and museums, from buyers and auction houses—were swept away by greed in an international drama? As long as the Salvator Mundi is hidden from view, the painting will be shrouded in mystery. And even if it is displayed, short of a scientific breakthrough in assigning attribution, the question remains: Is it a true Leonardo?