Unfortunately for art lovers, one of the most coveted paintings in the world is completely inaccessible.
On Monday, Artnet published an opinion article by Kenny Schachter who cited unnamed sources who said the “Salvator Mundi,” a painting that many have attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, was located on a superyacht owned by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The painting has been considered missing since it was sold at a 2017 auction for $450 million.
Keep reading below to learn how this portrait of Jesus slowly took over the art world.
Christie’s, an art auction house, says the painting was created by Leonardo da Vinci around the 1500s for King Louis XII of France and his consort, Anne of Brittany.
From there, according to Christie’s, “Salvator Mundi” was brought to England by French princess Henrietta Maria in 1625, and passed from one British ruler to the next. But sometime during 18th century, according to the auction house, the piece went missing.
Nearly 200 years later in 1900, Christie’s says the painting – which had then been repainted and altered – was rediscovered and acquired by Sir Charles Robinson. The new owner was said to have been informed that the painting was created by Bernardino Luini, a painter who worked with da Vinci.
The piece’s origins became even more foggy in 1913 when art historian Tancred Borenius described it in a catalog as being a “free copy after Boltraffio,” according to Christie’s. The name Boltraffio referred to Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, another student of da Vinci’s.
By 1958, according to Christie’s, the art had been completely altered with extra layers of paint, and was sold at an auction for £45 (by today’s exchange rate, that’s $57.25).
According to Artnet, which cited a new book from art critic Ben Lewis titled “The Last Leonardo,” the painting was “more than likely painted by Leonardo’s studio, then possibly touched up by the master before it was brought to market.”
And Lewis isn’t the first to believe that theory. In 2012, Carmen Bambach, a Renaissance-art specialist and curator at the Met, wrote an essay in which she discussed the possibility of da Vinci’s students working on the painting.
“Having studied and followed the picture during its conservation treatment, and seeing it in context in the exhibition, much of the original painting surface may be by Boltraffio, but with passages done by Leonardo himself – namely Christ’s proper right blessing hand, portions of the sleeve, his left hand and the crystal orb he holds,” Bambach wrote.
According to an April 2019 report from Vulture, American art dealers Alexander Parish and Robert Simon suspected that the painting was special when it popped up on a website for the New Orleans Auction Gallery in 2005.
The two reportedly planned to bid $10,000 on what they assumed was a “Salvator Mundi” created during the Renaissance, but ended up winning the painting for a mere $1,000. From there, Parish and Simon elected art restorer Dianne Dwyer Modestini to work on the painting.
Through their research, it was discovered that da Vinci likely did work on the piece, as seen through pentimenti, or underlying layers of sketches that were changed in the final piece.
According to Christie’s, it was these studies that led the painting to be brought to London in 2008. It was later taken to the Louvre in Paris, where it was deemed to be an authentic da Vinci piece by art historian Vincent Delieuvin.
According to a 2011 post from Art History News, a blog about art, “Salvator Mundi” was displayed at London’s National Gallery from November 9, 2011, through February 5, 2012.
At the time, the National Gallery appears to have believed that da Vinci was the sole creator of the “Salvator Mundi.” As a result, the gallery felt “it would be of great interest to include this painting in the exhibition as a new discovery,” according to Art History News.
“It will be presented as the work of Leonardo, and this will obviously be an important opportunity to test this new attribution by direct comparison with works universally accepted as Leonardo’s,” the National Gallery said in 2011, according to Art History News.
Leading up to the auction, Reuters reported in 2017 that the painting was expected to sell for $100 million. The report also said the painting was going to be sold anonymously from a “European private collector.”
But, by the day of the auction, November 15, 2017, the sale had broken world records, and “Salvator Mundi” became the “most expensive work of art auction,”according to Christie’s. It sold for $450,312,500.
While the painting’s purchaser originally remained anonymous, it was later discovered that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had obtained the painting through a proxy.
Nearly one year after being purchased by Mohammed bin Salman, “Salvator Mundi” was meant to be on display at the Louvre museum in Abu Dhabi.
In a September 2018 tweet from the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism, however, it was announced that the exhibition had been delayed. The department gave no reason for the change in plans.
Three months later in March 2019, The New York Times reported that staff who worked at Louvre Abu Dhabi said privately that they were unaware of the painting’s location. The report also cited a private official, who said the Louvre in Paris also could not locate the painting.
According to the Guardian, museum curators chose to exclude the painting because they do not believe that da Vinci is its sole creator.
Writer and art historian Ben Lewis agreed, and said at the Hay Literary Festival that because officials at the Louvre would prefer to display the painting as a “workshop” piece, or one created by da Vinci and his students, the owner likely would refuse to lend it, as the painting’s value would be decreased, according to the Guardian.
“My inside sources at the Louvre, various sources, tell me that not many curators think this picture is an autograph Leonardo da Vinci,” Lewis said, according to the Guardian. “If they did exhibit it, they would want to exhibit it as ‘workshop.'”
“If that’s the case, it will be very unlikely that it will be shown, because the owner can’t possibly lend it – the value will go down to somewhere north of $1.5 million,” he continued.
According to Artnet writer Kenny Schachter’s unnamed sources, the yacht is also home to “Salvator Mundi,” which is said to have been “whisked away in the middle of the night on Mohammed bin Salman’s plane and relocated to his yacht.”
Now, the painting will likely remain onboard until the crown prince “finishes transforming the ancient Saudi precinct of Al-Ula into a vast cultural hub,” according to Schachter’s sources.
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