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From Riches to Rags? Louvre Questions the Authenticity of Leonardo's Salvator Mundi

  • Leonardo da Vinci - Salvator Mundi, c1500, one of the most controversial artworks regarding the authenticity
May 28, 2019
A philosophy graduate interested in critical theory, politics and art. Alias of Jelena Martinović.

In 2017, Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi made headlines when it sold for $450 million at Christie’s in New York, becoming the world’s most expensive painting. After the work was auctioned, 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.

Earlier this year, The Louvre in Paris announced that it has requested a loan of the painting ahead of its forthcoming Leonardo da Vinci show. However, since then, speculation about the painting’s authenticity has proliferated. This week, The Telegraph reported that the museum has privately decided it will label the painting merely as “from the workshop” of Leonardo, a move suggesting that Salvator Mundi might not be what we think it is. If this proves to be true, the value of the painting will go down to somewhere north of $1.5m.

The Last Leonardo da Vinci – Salvator Mundi | Christie’s

Controversies Surrounding Salvator Mundi

Few works have evoked as much intrigue Salvator Mundi did. After it was sold for $450 million, the anonymous bidder turned out to be a close ally and possible stand-in for the ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Although it was announced it was acquired for Louvre Abu Dhabi, the work is nowhere to be seen. It is unclear how the museum acquired it from the Saudis and it if actually did. Last June, Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, the Chairman of Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority, announced that the work will go on display in Louvre Abu Dhabi in September:

Having spent so long undiscovered, this masterpiece is now our gift to the world. We look forward to welcoming people from near and far to witness its beauty.

After canceling a scheduled unveiling of the painting, Louvre Abu Dhabi and the culture department is refusing to provide any answers. It has also been reported that the staff of the museum has no knowledge of the painting’s whereabouts. When The Louvre in Paris initially wanted to display the work in their show, the phrasing of their statement regarding the loan negotiations suggested that the painting is still owned by a single individual.

Meanwhile, any clues to the whereabouts of the painting have the art world abuzz. This ongoing uncertainty had alarmed Louvre in Paris, once again sparking the debates over its authenticity.

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This morning @walter_isaacson stopped by to take a closer look at the Salvator Mundi. ✨🔮✨ #salvatormundi

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Debates Over the Authenticity of the Work

Spotted by a pair of dealers at an auction in New Orleans in 2005, the painting was brought to Professor Dianne Dwyer Modestini of N.Y.U. under the claims it might be Leonardo himself who painted it. After she stripped away overpainting, repaired damage made by a split in the wood panel and restored details, the painting was authenticated by distinguished Leonardo experts such as Martin Kemp and David A Brown. The work was soon exhibited in a retrospective of Leonardo’s work at the National Gallery in London in 2011 and, two years later, purchased by a Russian billionaire, Dmitry E. Rybolovlev, for $127.5 million. When Rybolovlev decided to sell it in 2017, Salvator Mundi came in the full theatrical spotlight of a public auction at the Christie’s New York saleroom in the Rockefeller Center.

In a 2019 book titled The Last Leonardo: The Secret Lives of the World’s Most Expensive Painting, the historian Ben Lewis narrated the story of Salvator Mundi with great gusto and formidably researched detail. He examines the chequered career of the painting from its inception to the famed Christie’s auction, summing up its story as a narrative with “too many plot holes”, however, concluding it is “a Leonardo for our time, a post-truth Leonardo”.

Meanwhile, the critic Jerry Saltz described it as “a dreamed-up version of a missing da Vinci,” adding that its “surface is inert, varnished, lurid, scrubbed over, and repainted so many times that it looks simultaneously new and old.” He also noted that the work lacks the compositional dynamism associated with the Renaissance master which could be seen in 15 to 20 existing da Vinci paintings, but it is rather executed in a more “Byzantine, flat, forward-facing symmetry”. He argues that da Vinci, an artist of epic skills who was at the time the painting is believed to be painted one of the most famous artists in Italy, would never produce a conservative, backward-looking picture such as this one.

Responding to Saltz’s criticism, expert restorer Jennifer L. Mass Ph.D, president of Scientific Analysis of Fine Art, LLC, stated for Artnet:

It’s not unusual for paintings to have some degree of very appropriate in-painting and that is simply something that you would expect for a work of art that’s several hundred years old.

In his recent Leonardo biography, American writer and journalist Walter Isaacson also claims the painting is authentic. Addressing the controversies surrounding the mysterious orb in Christ’s left hand, he later explained in a Facebook post that he believes that Leonardo “made a decision to paint the crystal orb in a way that is miraculous and not distracting”, adding that “all of the art experts I know agree, from Martin Kemp to Luke Syson.”

Is Salvator Mundi Fake?

Debates over the authenticity of the work continued even after the work became the most expansive painting in the world and several scholars have suggested it is, at least in part, the work of one of da Vinci’s pupils. In Ben Lewis’ opinion, the Louvre Abu Dhabi canceled the unveiling of the painting because the owners were put off by these doubts.

He also said to the Hay literary festival that his inside sources at The Louvre in Paris told him that “not many Louvre curators think this is an autograph [real] Leonardo da Vinci and if they did exhibit it, they really want to exhibit it as ‘workshop’.”

The Louvre hasn’t confirmed these claims yet in an official statement, but the silence and mystery surrounding the painting after its purchase suggest that there might be truth to this. This would result in a drastic change in the value of the work and a scandal both for the buyer and Christie’s.

Featured image: Leonardo da Vinci – Salvator Mundi, c. 1500. Image via Wikimedia Commons.