No one knows the whereabouts of the most expensive painting ever sold, but it won’t be the first time the painting has disappeared and resurfaced. Let’s recount the history and mystery of this Dan Brown-like saga: “Salvator Mundi”, painted by Leonardo da Vinci, was commissioned by Louis XII of France in 1506. It took da Vinci seven years to complete the painting, making late 1512 the year of its arrival in England. It was brought to England by Henrietta Maria upon her marriage to Charles I in 1625. She kept it at the Queen’s House in Greenwich until it was sold to John Stone, a mason in 1651 when, following Charles I’s execution in 1649, it was returned to his inheritor, James II of England in 1660.
It then went to his mistress, Catherine, Duchess of Dorchester whose illegitimate daughter’s illegitimate son, Sir Charles Sheffield, 1st baronet, auctioned it in 1763. It disappeared from the historical record for over 100 years until bought by Francis Cook, 1st Viscount of Montserrat in 1900, at that time attributed to Bernardino Luini, one of Da Vinci’s assistants. Going up the Cook line, Cook’s grandson, Sir Francis Cook, sold it in 1858 for 45 pounds sterling to a 19th century British industrialist, heavily painted over, and attributed to da Vinci’s follower, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio. In 1958, it again sold for $49.
It was next seen at auction in New Orleans in 2005, put up by Baton Rouge businessman Basil Clovis Hendry, Sr. for less than $10,000 ($8450 euros) and sold to fine art dealer Robert Simon at a clearance sale. The oil on wood panel “Salvator Mundi” was once attributed to a pupil of da Vinci’s, but an international group of experts including Robert Simon, a New York old master specialist, authenticated the painting as da Vinci’s in 2011.
Ultimately, that group owned the painting. Robert Simon and his partner art dealers employed Dr. Diane Modestini, world renowned conservator at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, to restore the painting. She performed expert analysis and restoration. At that point, Robert Simon and his colleagues, with agreement by Dr. Modestini, announced that the painting was a lost da Vinci, “Salvator Mundi,” and exhibited it in a packed show at London’s National Gallery in 2011. That last exhibition, “Leonardo da Vinci, Painter of the Court of Milan” opened to huge crowds on November 9, 2011 and was on view until February 5, 2012 at London’s National Gallery. Shortly after acquiring this painting, the National Gallery also bought a collection of excellent drawings attributed to da Vinci.
In May 2013, it was sold to the Basel, Switzerland art dealer, Yves Bouvier, for a little over $75 million. He subsequently sold it to his client, Dmitry Rybolevlev, for $127.5 million. We may note that this is the same Russian who bought Donald Trump’s extra lots in Florida that comprised Mar-A-Lago, for twice the listing price and in an all cash deal. Rybolevlev and Bouvier are presently engaged in a lawsuit alleging overcharging by Bouvier for several paintings sold to Rybolevlev.
Christie’s auctioned the painting for Mr. Rybolevlev in 2017, and it reaped $450,312,500 million, less 50.3 million in fees, for Rybolevlev. The successful bidder, reported by Christie’s Auction House, was Prince Bander bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al Saud, a distant scion of the royal family of Saudi Arabia and friend of Crown Prince Mohammed. Following the auction, Bander was named Saudi Minister of Culture.
It was announced shortly after the sale, in a tweet, that the Saudis would be lending the painting, for exhibit, to the new Louvre Abu Dhabi. The latest development is the announcement that the Ministry of Culture in Abu Dhabi is the new owner of the painting, but also that an unnamed insurance company’s expert, Daniel Fabian, was examining the painting in Zurich. However, in further intrigue, the exam was canceled and now, no one knows where the painting is or if it still exists.
Several stylistic arguments convince me that this is a real da Vinci, among the 10 or more copies that have been made of it. The half-length portrait is typical of renaissance portraits in da Vinci’s time. “Salvator Mundi” (Savior of the World), holds his right hand in a gesture of blessing, a theme typical of French and Flemish painting at the time, and his left a glass sphere. This depiction of Christ derives from Nevererlandish prototypes that were used as private devotional paintings in 16th century Italy, often traveling around with their owners. We may remember that this painting was brought to England by Henrietta Maria, fiancé of Charles I.
The orb stands for royal dominion, furthering the connection with King Charles I. It is surmised that the glass sphere he holds in his hand proves da Vinci painted it owing to his interest in optics and science. Da Vinci was particularly interested in and studied rock crystal and the “bubbles” seen in the glass resemble those in rock crystal. Most importantly, the painting sold at Christie’s was painted on oak, preferred by da Vinci, split due to a knot in the wood. Furthermore, the blue in the folds on Christ’s robe is of Lapis Lazuli, used often by da Vinci, and the only “Salvator Mundi” that used lapis lazuli among all the copies. Stylistically and materially, it is a convincing original by Leonardo da Vinci.
This is all fascinating, akin to a Dan Brown novel, but we may ask why? Is it only because the price of the painting is the highest ever paid for a work? Is it because da Vinci only painted about 20 panels? Is it because the art public has been searching for this painting since the late 18th century, and even before that, with many gaps in its history? Whatever it is, it looks to me like the “Salvator Mundi” is winking at us amidst all this hoopla about his portrait, but that is the art world.