Why is everyone talking about Leonardo da Vinci?
Last week, auction house Christie’s threw the art world into a churn of excitement with the announcement that one of the leading lots in its Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, scheduled for November 15 in New York, is Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi. The painting, believed to be one among the fewer than 20 paintings directly attributed to the artist, has been called “the greatest artistic rediscovery of the 21st century”, with its estimated price pegged at $ 100 million (about Rs 650 crore).
Why was the painting a “rediscovery”?
Da Vinci is believed to have painted Salvator Mundi around the same time that he painted Mona Lisa — in the first decade of the 16th century. Its first recorded owner was King Charles I of Britain, based on an inventory created a year after his execution in 1649. The painting might have passed into the possession of his son, Charles II, but the trail gets murky thereon — until 1900 when, according to Christie’s, it was bought by art collector and connoisseur Sir John Charles Robinson for Sir Francis Cook’s collection at Doughty House in Richmond, England. By this time the painting, which had been painted over and shoddily restored, was much altered, and its illustrious history had long been forgotten. In fact, Sir Robinson had bought the work thinking it was a Bernardino Luini, who is believed to have worked with Da Vinci. After the Cook Collection was broken up and dispersed among collectors around the world, Salvator Mundi reappeared in a 1958 auction, where it was sold for £ 58, a meagre sum even by the day’s standards. In 2005, it was bought by a consortium for $ 10,000 — this time, however, it was closely examined and restored by the renowned conservator of Old Master paintings, Dianne Dwyer Modestini, who also meticulously documented the six-year process of recovering the work from under layers of paint, resin and grime.
Court battles followed the rediscovery. The billionaire Russian art collector Dmitry Rybolovlev accused Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier, from whom he had bought the work in 2013 for $ 127.5 million, of having exorbitantly marked up the price. Rybolovlev, who had also bought 38 other paintings from Bouvier for a total $ 2 billion, alleged that he had been overcharged to the tune of $ 500 million to $ 1 billion. Bouvier himself had bought the Salvator Mundi days earlier for $ 80 million at a Sotheby’s auction from the same consortium that had purchased the work for $ 10,000 only six years earlier. Once they knew how the painting had been “flipped”, this group threatened to sue Sotheby’s for being cheated out of a much higher price than they deserved. While Bouvier was arrested in 2015 in Monaco based on criminal charges filed by Rybolovlev, Sotheby’s asserted it was not liable for any losses incurred in the 2013 sale, since it had been merely a facilitator.
But how do we know that this painting is indeed Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi?
While it is true that the subject of the painting — Christ as Saviour of the World — was a popular one in the 15th and 16th centuries, this work is unmistakably Da Vinci’s, say experts. Its existence was known based on written records — although until 2005 at least, most experts believed that it had been irretrievably lost. In an interview to Blouin Artinfo in 2011, Renaissance scholar and Da Vinci biographer Martin Kemp said that the moment he saw the painting, he knew it had been painted by the master artist, since it had the same “presence” that other known Da Vincis have. In common with other Da Vinci works such as Mona Lisa and the Virgin of the Rocks, Salvator Mundi has a certain haziness and mystery, attributable in large part to his characteristic use of sfumato — a technique of fine shading, whereby transitions between colours and tones are greatly softened.
Beyond this, other details give away the master’s touch — the finely rendered ringlets of hair and the accurate depiction of light as it plays on the orb that the figure holds in its left hand. Experts also noted the existence of numerous pentimenti, especially in the thumb of the right hand which is raised in blessing. Pentimenti are the visible traces left when previous compositions of the same painting are altered by the artist; they are recognised as important evidence in establishing the authenticity of works, since copies wouldn’t have these marks.
Why is the upcoming sale important?
Salvator Mundi is the last Da Vinci painting that is still in private hands; all other recognised pieces by the artist are in institutional collections. Until 2011, when the National Gallery in London included it in its show Leonardo da Vinci: Painter of the Court of Milan, it had never been on public view. The upcoming auction in New York is a good chance for a museum or other cultural institution to make it available for larger public viewing.