Saving the World for $450 Million
Updated: Jun 18, 2022
On November 15, 2017 a painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci sold for a record breaking amount. The “Salvator Mundi,” or Savior of the World, is an oil painting of Christ holding an orb in his left hand and right hand raised in a gesture of blessing. Christie’s, the auction house responsible for the sale, staged an aggressive marketing campaign, stating the painting was like discovering a new planet.
The marketing video was akin to a movie trailer of faces of stunned people reacting to this new planet. My two cents: perhaps this “new planet” should be evaluated without the marketing hype. “Attributed to Leonardo” is very different from “by Leonardo.” The hype of a new discovery clearly motivates the market and sale price.
How is art evaluated to determine authenticity?
Documentation: written records, drawings, biographies, can provide clues to the artist’s work.
Provenance: the ownership of the art is documented by who sold/bought the art.
Connoisseurship: experts and scholars examine the art for style and technique.
Forensics: an analysis of the materials including dating of the paint, canvas, panel, or frame can be vital in establishing an accurate time frame. X-rays can help determine what was painting over or changed.
Here’s what makes the Salvator Mundi painting authentic and problematic:
The hair is realistic and detailed. The orb looks like crystal Leonardo would have studied and reproduced.
The sfumato with the figure emerging from the dark shadow is typical of Leonardo.
The man looks like a woman – most of Leonardo’s men have effeminate features, just like most of Michelangelo’s women look more like men.
Martin Kemp, Leonardo scholar, believes it’s authentic.
The anatomy of the hands is realistic as that section of the painting is not as damaged as the face.
The pose is not dynamic. Leonardo preferred a slight turn (Mona Lisa) to reveal a three-quarters view or a twisting pose. Full frontal is generally not Leo’s style.
It’s just too plain looking. Blah. Leonardo’s paintings have such depth and subtle energy as if the figure was painted in mid-motion.
The painting has a sketchy history, having gone missing for hundreds of years. Very little provenance.
There’s no documentation that Leonardo painted this subject.
Jacques Franck, Leonardo scholar, disputes the authenticity.
Leonardo da Vinci, Head of the Virgin in Three-Quarter View, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 1510-13. The depth of expression, soft modeling and three-quarters view shows his artistic genius. Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0.
If you want to see a great Leonardo masterpiece, try the Mona Lisa (Louvre, Paris), Virgin of the Rocks (National Gallery, London) or the only da Vinci painting stateside is in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., a portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci. I believe the new owner of Salvator Mundi probably has a very expensive copy or painting done by some Leonardo followers.
Leonardo da Vinci, Ginevra de' Benci, National Gallery of Art, Washington D. C. Digital image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0.
For more information:
Pogrebin, Robin and Scott Reyburn. “Leonardo da Vinci Painting Sells for $450.3M, Shattering Auction Highs.” New York Times, November 15, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/15/arts/design/leonardo-da-vinci-salvator-mundi-christies-auction.html
Daley, Michael. “Problems with the New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi Part I: Provenance and Presentation. “ Art Watch UK online, 14 November, 2017. http://artwatch.org.uk/problems-with-the-new-york-leonardo-salvator-mundi-part-i-provenance-and-presentation/