(CNN) – When bids for Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” hit $200 million there was an audible gasp in the auction room. At the $300 million mark, onlookers broke into applause.
By the time the painting sold for $450.3 million, Christie’s in New York had witnessed one of the most dramatic moments in recent art history. Once dismissed as a copy and sold for just £45 ($57) in the 1950s, this mysterious depiction of Christ had become — by some considerable margin — the most expensive artwork ever to appear at auction.
And the drama didn’t stop there.
“Salvator Mundi” hasn’t been seen in public since that evening in November 2017. Its whereabouts have become the source of intense speculation after the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which had previously announced it would display the painting, last year postponed the grand unveiling without explanation.
The most common theory is that the 500-year-old artwork is sitting in storage in Switzerland — specifically in Geneva, where, according to The New York Times, more than a million works of art are kept in secretive tax-free warehouses by collectors and galleries. But last week, another theory emerged in an opinion piece by art dealer Kenny Schachter published on Artnet: that the last known privately-held Leonardo is on a luxury yacht owned by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.
It is widely thought that the record-breaking bid was made on behalf of bin Salman by his friend, ally and fellow Saudi prince, Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud. Shortly after the allegation emerged in 2017, the Saudi Embassy in Washington published a statement claiming that Prince Badr had, in fact, been asked to act as an intermediary for the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism, not the crown prince. But bin Salman, often known as MBS, has himself never publicly confirmed or denied his role in the purchase.
Art world mystery
The yacht story may not be as farfetched as it seems, according to Ben Lewis, author of “The Last Leonardo,” a book detailing the mystery and controversy surrounding the painting.
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“It’s either on the yacht or in a Geneva lockup, and I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that the yacht is really quite plausible,” he said in a phone interview, adding: “But I would suggest that it may not be the safest environment in which to hang up this picture.”
Lewis’ growing conviction centers on an account by Dianne Modestini, the conservator responsible for restoring the “Salvator Mundi” ahead of the $450 million sale. She told CNN that, about a year after the auction, she was contacted by a Swiss restorer looking for advice on how to safely transport the fragile painting to France, with the suggestion it was headed for the Louvre in Paris.
Yet, the painting appears to have never arrived — or not at the Louvre, at least. (The museum confirmed to CNN that the Abu Dhabi government has not yet responded to its request to borrow the artwork.)
Of course, the fact that logistical inquiries were made doesn’t mean the “Salvator Mundi” was moved at all. And Modestini said that, following initial exchanges with the Swiss conservator, a subsequent inspection of the work was called off, “which indicated to me, at least, that the planned transfer of the painting … was canceled,” she said in an email.
“Of course, something else may have happened since then. I find it hard to imagine that an insurance company would agree to cover it if they knew it was going to (be) kept on a yacht. But that is just speculation on my part.”
“Personally, I don’t find the story particularly credible,” she added.
Schachter, who would only reveal that the alleged transfer to bin Salman’s yacht occurred “within the last year,” countered: “You can insure anything anywhere, you can do anything you want as long as you pay the money.”
A matter of attribution
This is just the latest in a maelstrom of rumors and conspiracy theories that have swirled around the painting. How much credence to afford any of them is clearly up for debate.
But the global interest in such claims speaks to the art world’s obsession with the painting’s whereabouts. And much of the speculation around why the painting has remained hidden centers on its attribution.
For centuries, the “Salvator Mundi” was believed to be either a copy, or the work of one of the Italian master’s assistants. But in 2005, a consortium led by art dealers Robert Simon and Alexander Parrish purchased the work for under $10,000 in the hope it might be revealed to be an authentic Leonardo.
When they tasked Modestini with restoring the artwork, it was in dire condition — it had been heavily overpainted and its wood paneling badly damaged. Only after the restoration was complete was the painting declared a true Leonardo.
In 2011, following six years of investigation and authentication research, the National Gallery in London unveiled the newly restored painting at its Leonardo exhibition. A Christie’s account of this process describes “broad” and “unusually uniform” consensus that it was Leonardo’s work.
Yet the painting’s attribution has been questioned by several art historians. Collaborative efforts between Leonardo and his assistants were not uncommon, and while few experts totally discount the Italian master’s involvement, some believe the “Salvator Mundi” should, at the very least, be partly attributed to his workshop.
Scholars who back the authentication point to hallmarks of Leonardo’s craft: the skillful depiction of Christ’s raised hand, the “sfumato” painting technique used on his face, and the use of pigments and panels consistent with the artist’s oeuvre. The existence of a hidden thumb (a “pentimento,” or “second thought” whereby a painter changes his or her mind) suggests, to some, that the painting cannot be a copy.
Other historical evidence is also regularly cited, such as the existence of preparatory drawings by Leonardo and a 1650 etching of the “Salvator Mundi” by the printmaker Wenceslaus Hollar, who claims to have sketched from the original and directly credited the Italian master.
“The picture, in a number of key areas, shows what I call Leonardo’s ‘science of art,'” said Martin Kemp, a Leonardo scholar, in a phone interview.
“That is to say: His understanding of various aspects of nature and how it can be recreated (manifests) in a way that none of the copyists really understand. Indeed, (Leonardo’s) immediate followers in the studio didn’t have that level of intellectual understanding of science, optics, anatomy, dynamics and so on.
“On the basis of what I’ve seen in the picture, in incredibly high-resolution digital, in the scientific examination and in the photographs of it when it was being conserved, I don’t rule out the possibility of studio participation,” said Kemp, who is set to publish a book on the subject later this year. “But I cannot define any areas that I would say are studio work.”
Others are less certain. Numerous writers and scholars have filled the silence surrounding the painting with alternative theories.
Lewis believes that the artwork is “Leonardo plus workshop — and very little Leonardo.” Oxford University historian Matthew Landrus, meanwhile, has claimed that only about 5% to 20% of the painting was completed by Leonardo (“It is a Leonardo painting with the help of workshop assistants,” he told CNN last year, attributing credit to the painter’s assistant Bernardino Luini).
Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Carmen Bambach — who, along with Kemp, was one of a small number of scholars invited to examine the painting at the National Gallery in 2008 — is expected to credit another assistant, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, in her forthcoming book.
According to Lewis, there is not only disagreement in the wider art community, but also among the small group of experts that inspected the painting in 2008 — a meeting he described as “absolutely crucial” in the decision to attribute the work to Leonardo. Indeed, in comments published in the Guardian, Bambach has since criticized Christie’s for including her name in its cataloging, saying that she did not expressly back the attribution at the meeting.
Christie’s did not directly respond to Banbach’s criticisms, but a spokesperson for the auction house told CNN in an email: “The attribution to Leonardo was established almost ten years prior to sale by previous owners in preparation for the painting’s inclusion in the National Gallery show … While we recognize that this painting is a subject of enormous public opinion, no new opinion or speculation since the 2017 sale at Christie’s has caused us to revisit this position.”
Kemp described Lewis’ account of the meeting as “completely spurious,” saying that “we were not asked to vote and say (whether it was a Leonardo) … It was a very controlled, responsible process. I was put under no pressure at all to express an opinion.”
In a statement emailed to CNN, the National Gallery defended the decision to attribute the painting to Leonardo in its 2011 exhibition, saying it “makes careful consideration before including any loan in an exhibition.”
“It weighs up the advantage in including it — the benefit to the public in seeing the work, the advantage to the argument and scholarship of the exhibition as a whole,” the statement continued. “On that occasion we felt that it would be of great interest to include ‘Salvator Mundi’ in (the exhibition) as a new discovery as it was an important opportunity to test a new attribution by direct comparison with works universally accepted as Leonardo’s.”
Amid the disputes, what is less debatable is that any change in attribution would be hugely damaging to the artwork’s value — as well as the credibility of institutions involved in its authentication. Lewis, who said that “as a workshop painting this picture would fetch between $1.5 and $20 million,” also speculated that the current owner may be keeping the artwork hidden to protect it from further scrutiny.
“I think (the owner is) worried about exposing the painting to the oxygen of public display,” he said. “What’s that going to do? Lots of people can come and discuss whether it’s a Leonardo or not … the picture would come in for a lot of criticism. I think its authenticity would be argued over.
“The simple fact is that the world’s greatest Leonardo experts are divided about the attribution of this painting.”
For all the public wrangling over its attribution, fascination with the “Salvator Mundi” initially stemmed from its remarkable history.
Thought to have been commissioned by Louis XII of France, the artwork was later owned by England’s Charles I. Some historians believe it was later kept in the private chambers of Charles II’s wife, Henrietta Maria.
But the painting’s storied past is also filled with long periods in which — like today — its whereabouts were unknown.
The “Salvator Mundi” was unaccounted for between 1763 and 1900, when it was acquired by the painter and collector Sir Charles Robinson (at which time it was still being credited as the work of Luini). It sold at Sotheby’s in 1958 for just £45 (approximately $57), and then again disappeared before resurfacing at a small auction house in the US.
It was here that Simon and Parrish took their gamble. And in 2013, following the painting’s authentication, they sold it for $80 million (more than 8,000 times what they had paid for it) to Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier, who, shortly after, sold it to Russian businessman Dmitry Rybolovlev for $127.5 million.
This raged to-do tale — coupled with the painting’s rich provenance and the fact that it’s considered one of around 20 surviving Leonardo works — proves, perhaps, that the value of an artwork is as much about its story as its aesthetic value.
But recent twists in this remarkable tale may have had the opposite effect.
“I think it would be very difficult to sell it now for $450 million,” Lewis said. “It would just be impossible — it’s too controversial.”
The Saudi government and the Louvre Abu Dhabi had not responded to CNN’s requests for comment at the time of publication.
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