Salvator Mundi — Is it a Da Vinci painting, or not?

Bob Brehl: Salvator Mundi painting goes on the lam

  • April 8, 2019

The art world is abuzz about the whereabouts of the mysterious painting of Jesus Christ attributed to Leonardo da Vinci.

Few facts are crystal clear about Salvator Mundi (Latin for “Saviour of the World”), except that the rediscovered artwork is by far the most expensive painting ever; selling for a record $450.3 million (U.S.) in November 2017 at a New York auction.

Described as a religious version of the Mona Lisa or the male Mona Lisa, Salvator Mundi depicts a serene Jesus with flowing ringlets of hair, holding an orb in His left hand with His right hand pointing heavenward. It has been hailed as the greatest artistic rediscovery of the last 100 years. Others think it could be a hoax and painted by a Leonardo student.

“It has an extraordinary spiritual quality,” Dianne Modestini told CNN after spending several years restoring the 500-year-old painting.

Modestini, a professor at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, told The New York Times the last she heard of it was late last year from a restoration expert in Zurich who was to inspect it for insurance reasons, but the examination was cancelled.

“To deprive art lovers and many others who were moved by this picture — a masterpiece of such rarity — is deeply unfair,” she said.

Salvator Mundi has been shrouded in controversy all the way back to the Renaissance when it was painted. First, did the master Leonardo really paint it or was it done by one of his disciples? In 2008, leading international Leonardo scholars certified its authenticity.

Others aren’t so sure and believe Leonardo may have simply made suggestions to the artist, such as the ringlets and the detailed light refracting through the orb, Leonardo trademarks.

It was believed to have been owned by England’s Charles I and sold off after his execution in 1649. From there it disappeared from the historical record until turning up in the collection of a 19th-century British industrialist.

By this point, it had been heavily painted over, begging the question: Why would anyone knowingly paint over a Leonardo?

It surfaced again at a London auction in 1958, listed as the artwork of Giovanni Boltraffio, one of Leonardo’s pupils. At that auction, it sold for a paltry $125.

Then in 2005, a pair of dealers spotted it at a New Orleans auction and bought it for an undisclosed amount. They took it to Professor Modestini. After several months of meticulous restoration she became convinced it was an original Da Vinci.

Three years later, it was ready for inspection by Leonardo scholars, who agreed with Modestini. In 2011, it was the centrepiece of a Leonardo exhibit at the National Gallery in London.

It was then sold in 2013 to Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev for $127.5 million. With a plethora of legal and financial problems, Rybolovlev put it up for auction in 2017. The New York Times discovered the anonymous buyer to be Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud, a little known member of a distant branch of the Saudi royal family. But he is believed to be a close friend and confidant of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In 2018, Saudi’s royal court named Prince Bader the kingdom’s firstever minister of culture.

Many believe Crown Prince Mohammed, not Prince Bader, is the real owner and he wants to keep his identity secret due to his many international controversies, which may include murder.

The New York Times reported: “Prince Mohammed’s aggression and impulsiveness have recently come under new scrutiny in the West after American intelligence agencies concluded that he ordered the killing last fall of the dissident Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who was ambushed and dismembered by Saudi agents in a consulate in Istanbul. But by the time of auction, the prince had already shown a taste for pricey trophies, paying $500 million for a yacht and $300 million for a chateau in France.”

Shortly after the 2017 sale, the Louvre Abu Dhabi announced it would be displaying the Salvator Mundi in September 2018, but as that date crept closer, the museum canceled the exhibit with no explanation. Neither prince has commented about the painting and its whereabouts.

Which begs the question: Why would you spend $450 million on a painting and then mysteriously make it disappear without a word of explanation? Could it be as simple as you’re a bad dude?

Flamboyant art critic Jerry Saltz of New York Magazine has another theory: Embarrassment.

“I’ve been looking at art for 40 years and this is a made up piece of junk,” Saltz told HBO’s Vice News. He insists Leonardo did not paint Salvator Mundi, although he may have “touched” it to help one of his students. The piece, he says, should have the label “Studio of Leonardo” not painted by Leonardo.

This fall marks the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death and the Louvre in Paris plans a blockbuster exhibit of his various engineering and art works including his 17 known paintings, although it’s looking like Salvator Mundi won’t be among them.

(Brehl is a writer and author of many books.)

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