Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” sold on Wednesday night for $450.3 million with fees — nearly half a billion dollars. The staggering sum blew away the previous record for art sold at auction, which was Picasso’s “Women of Algiers” $179.4 million — pocket change to the buyers of the da Vinci.
But the painting known as “the male Mona Lisa” has an odd story, one shrouded in mystery and allegations of fakery.
The painting of Jesus Christ as Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World) was reputedly commissioned by Louis XII of France in 1506 from da Vinci, the world’s most famous artist at the time. After its delivery, it remained in London for 400 years.
But the painting somehow ended up in the collection of Sir Francis Cook, who in 1958 sold it through Sotheby’s for just $60. At that time, the painting was attributed to a student of da Vinci named Giovanni Boltraffio, and not considered to be an authentic da Vinci work.
A consortium of art dealers in New York reportedly bought the painting at a clearance sale in 2004 for just $10,000. They had the dark, heavily overpainted work cleaned and restored and then assessed by experts, who deemed it an real work of the Renaissance master.
Da Vinci expert Martin Kemp said in 2011 that he knew right away that the painting was real. “It had that kind of presence that Leonardos have … that uncanny strangeness that the later Leonardo paintings manifest.”
But many other art experts say it’s no da Vinci, and not even a very good fake at that.
“The composition doesn’t come from Leonardo, he preferred twisted movement. It’s a good studio work with a little Leonardo at best,” Jacques Franck, a Paris-based art historian and Leonardo specialist, told The New York Times on Wednesday.
Then there’s this fantastic piece by Jerry Saltz in The Vulture, headlined “They Say It’s by Leonardo. I Have Doubts. Big Doubts.”
I’m no art historian or any kind of expert in old masters. But I’ve looked at art for almost 50 years and one look at this painting tells me it’s no Leonardo. The painting is absolutely dead. Its surface is inert, varnished, lurid, scrubbed over, and repainted so many times that it looks simultaneously new and old. This explains why Christie’s pitches it with vague terms like “mysterious,” filled with “aura,” and something that “could go viral.” Go viral? As a poster, maybe. A two-dimensional ersatz dashboard Jesus.
Why else do I think this is a sham? Experts estimate that there are only 15 to 20 existing da Vinci paintings. Not a single one of them pictures a person straight on like this one. There is also not a single painting picturing an individual Jesus either. All of his paintings, even single portraits, depict figures in far more complex poses. Even the figure that comes remotely close to this painting, Saint John the Baptist, also from 1500, gives us a turning, young, randy-looking man with hair utterly different from and much more developed in terms of painting than the few curls Christie’s is raving about in their picture. Leonardo was an inventor of — and in love with — posing people in dynamic, weaving, more curved, and corkscrewing positions, predicting the compositions of Raphael, then in his 20s, and already being highly influenced, according to Vasari, by his acquaintance Leonardo. Renaissance masters were all about letting figures interact with the surface and the structure of the painting, curving space, involving the viewer in way more than an old-fashioned direct headshot. Leonardo never let a subject come at you all at once like this much more Byzantine, flat, forward-facing symmetry. No other Renaissance master was involved with Byzantine portraiture like this either. They were all pushing way beyond that by then. …
But all’s well that ends well, and this is bound to end well. By which I mean: poorly for Christie’s. No museum on Earth can afford an iffy picture like this at these prices — even if it’s true that any institution or collector who buys this painting for however much money will be able to foist it on viewers center stage as “the last da Vinci” and make bundles of money. And for any private collector who gets suckered into buying this picture and places it in their apartment or storage, it serves them right. (Though it is hard not to think of what better good that $100 million — or $2 billion — could do.) As for Christie’s, as an auction house, it should be shunned by the art world, recognized for what it is — a hostile witness to art. Let Andy Warhol have the last word in summing up what’s really going on; when he heard that the Mona Lisa was coming to New York in 1963, he said, “Why don’t they have someone copy it and send the copy, no one would know the difference.”
Or you could just wait a few hundred years and buy it then — when it’s on sale for $60.