Exactly three years ago, on November 15, 2017, a historic event took place. Leonardo da Vinci's painting, Salvator Mundi, became the most expensive painting in history, selling for 450 million dollars. If there is a painting in the world that deserves to be the most expensive in history, it must be a painting by Da Vinci. But the story of "Salvator Mundi", the doubts that arose after its sale and also the the trajectory preceding the sale, is the stuff Hollywood movies are made of.
The painting Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World) was painted by Leonardo da Vinci about five hundred years ago. It describes Jesus in a blessing position and has also been nick-named “the male Mona Lisa”. According to experts, the two pieces were painted at about the same time. This is one of 20 remaining works painted by Da Vinci himself and not by his assistants, and there are still doubts about some of them. It should be understood that Leonardo, like many artists in the Renaissance, employed many assistants and when a painting came out of the studio, it did not always have a touch of the masters’ hand.
The history of the painting
If Salvator Mundi could speak, he would probably have some hair-raising stories about the kings whose palaces he decorated, including the first King of England, Charles I, in the 17th century. He also suffered some bad times during his 500 years and suffered damaged that warranted restoration. Unfortunately, some bad professionals who treated him over the years, changed him beyond recognition and so he lost the masters’ special touch. For years, “Salvator Mundi” was considered a negligible work by one of Leonardo’s students. It is therefore not surprising that in 1958 it sold for only $ 70.
After disappearing for decades, an American art dealer, an expert on Old Masters, found the painting in 2005 at a trivial auction in the United States and decided to purchase it along with two other dealers for $10,000. This was a reasonable price for a dirty and not particularly high quality painting from the Renaissance period. But then came the turning point!
The partners decided to have the painting restored and that was when the original Leonardo qualities were revealed. For six years, until 2011, the world’s best experts on Leonardo engaged in a deep study of the painting, that led to an almost sweeping conclusion – Leonardo da Vinci himself created this painting.
Salvator Mundi was then “launched” in late 2011 at the Da Vinci exhibition at the National Gallery in London. Newspaper headlines compared the event to the discovery of a new planet! The audience stood in line for hours to witness the miracle. Salvatore Mundi regained its lost dignity.
And what did the partners who purchased it do? In 2013, after receiving the valuable stamp of authenticity, they decided to sell the work to a Swiss art dealer, Yves Bouvier, who paid $ 80 million for the painting – a really cheap price for a verified painting by Leonardo da Vinci. The shrewd dealer did not linger and in the same year flipped the painting, this time to a Russian oligarch who hired him as a consultant. The oligarch paid $127 million and the consultant has pocketed a handsome $ 47 million profit. But the oligarch discovered that his adviser had made a nice buck on him and sued him. This story tarnished the painting for the oligarch, who decided to sell it and so the lost painting of Da Vinci went up for auction at Christie’s New York in 2017.
Marketing a masterpiece
One of the fascinating aspects of the auction at Christie’s was the marketing campaign around Salvator Mundi. It started with the title “The Last Da Vinci” because it is the last painting (currently known) that is not in a museum and may continue to be privately owned. The rarity of the event contributed to the buzz created around it. After all, the last time a Leonardo was certified was in 1909.
An interesting issue that Christie’s had to decide was in which sale category to auction the painting. Among the many sale categories, the Old Masters sales do not receive much attention in the current period. Not only that but there was a need for a trick that would make the painting stand out against the other paintings.
The most popular sales today are actually of contemporary art but what is the connection? Christis found a connection and even obtained a painting by Andy Warhol, The Last Supper, inspired by another painting by Da Vinci. Based on this connection, they included Salvator Mundi in the contemporary sale, and explained that Da Vinci is eternal and his influence is felt unto this day. The “Holy Grail” of the art world – that’s what it was called. Cunningly, Christie put the painting at the beginning of the sale -the tenth item – to produce a little tension but mostly so that everything sold after it will look really cheap…. The pre-sale estimate was only $100 million, really low for Da Vinci’s painting and also relative to the record prices of the art market at that time. A painting by de Kooning, a 20th-century painter had hitherto held the record for the most expensive work of art, along with a painting by Cezanne from the late 19th century on the order of $ 300 million.
The highlight of the marketing campaign was an moving film shot by a well-known photographer named Nadav Kander (born in Israel but raised in South Africa). Nadav put his camera next to the painting and photographed the audience as if from the point of view of Salvator Mundi watching the audience watching him. About 30,000 people came to see the painting, that made an outrageous journey around the world (unthinkable for masterpieces in museums). At each stop (Hong Kong, San Francisco, London and New York) the painting was placed in a dark room, with two guards beside it. The video, which is about 4 minutes long, shows the different types of audience, of all genders, colors and ages, all in awe of this extraordinary piece. For the Christians the experience was especially exciting, the feeling as if they were receiving a personal blessing from Jesus evoked strong emotions that are well seen in this film, a work of art in itself.
Who has $450 million dollars to spare?
It was well worth the effort. The auction of Salvator Mundi lasted 20 long minutes. The buyer maintained anonymity at the time of the sale even though it was clear that this was not a museum but a private person for whom money was not a limitation. Finally, the hammer came down at 450 million dollars including a handsome commission for the auction house and the Russian oligarch, actually owed thanks the Swiss consultant, for the big profit he made.
Two weeks after the sale, the identity of the buyer was revealed: an unknown Saudi prince, devoid of any background of interest in art, who signed up for sale the day before it took place and put the auction house under pressure to make sure he was “kosher.” The New York Times revealed the details, a day after the new Louvre Abu Dhabi tweeted that Salvator Mundi was on its way to the Persian Gulf. The unknown prince is very close to the Saudi heir, who is very close to the heir to the throne of Abu Dhabi, who was very happy to receive the painting (which was referred to as the male Mona Lisa to obscure the Christian context).
To this day it is not exactly clear who owns the painting, which was allegedly purchased by Abu Dhabi’s Ministry of Culture through a Saudi representative though it was later claimed that the buyer is actually Saudi Prince Muhammad bin Salman. What we do know is that after realizing that Europe had lost one of its most important cultural assets in favor of the Emirates, an official announcement came from the Louvre in Abu Dhabi that Salvator Mundi would star in the museums inauguration in September 2018. That didn’t happen and actually, since the sale in November 2017 the painting has not been seen.
When the time came to open the museum in Abu Dhabi, an announcement was made that the display of the painting had been postponed. Then, in June 2019, a very disturbing article was published in which it was reported that the most expensive painting in the world was on the yacht of the Saudi prince, and was sailing around the Red Sea. Yes, you guessed it – if the ship sinks, the painting will probably go down with it too. An amusing but terrifying video was published at the same time, imagining this absurd situation. The rumours mentioned the new cultural center planned to be built in Saudi Arabia, in an area called Al Ula as the alternative new home for the painting. A museum there is planned to compete with the National Museum of Qatar and the Cultural Island of Abu Dhabi. The competition between these rich people causes them to spend millions on Western works of art, which are exported to Arab countries.
Needless to say, the Mona Lisa will never leave the Louvre for fear of being damaged. Expensive paintings should be kept in a controlled climate and definitely not on a ship at sea. Martin Kemp, one of the world’s greatest experts on Leonardo, said in a lecture he gave in November 2019 that he was confident that whoever paid $ 450 million for the painting would take good care of it it. But in this specific case, it is not unreasonable to believe that money and status are more valuable than the art itself.
Since the sale, questions about the authenticity of Salvator Mundi, whose physical condition was poor and has undergone massive restoration (a 500-year-old painting, after all). Despite the official confirmation, voices arose, insisting that Leonardo’s students, and not the master himself, painted it.
After the sale, a most unflattering image was published by the former director of the Metropolitan Museum, showing the condition of the painting while being restored. The sad image raised the question how much of the painting that was auctioned was actually painted by Leonardo.
In October 2019, The Louvre opened a much anticipated exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of his death. Until the last minute it was not clear if Salvator Mundi would be exhibited. A label was prepared for the painting but the museum announced that it would state that the painting was attributed to Leonardo Studio, meaning that the Louvre actually expressed a lack of confidence in the authenticity of the painting. This, of course, is a major degradation for the most expensive work in history. In the end the Saudi prince decided not to lend it to the exhibition.
And so three years have passed and Salvator Mundi is nowhere to be found.
The most expensive painting in history is either on the yacht of the Saudi prince, or perhaps in his palace, or maybe in some palace in Abu Dhabi. What is clear is that doubts about the authenticity of the painting cannot be resolved. Perhaps future technologies will illuminate the source of the painting in a new light. Meanwhile this is the biggest mystery of the art world in modern times.