Unusually, Salvator Mundi was offered as “a special lot” in Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art evening sale – clearly an attempt to pitch the picture at buyers beyond the traditional Old Master market and into areas where more of the world’s biggest-spending art collectors operate.
Judging by the demand that emerged on the night, it seems that the decision to place it alongside works by the likes of Andy Warhol and Cy Twombly paid off for the auctioneers and vendor.
When it comes to Old Masters, normally factors such as condition, market freshness, provenance and questions over attribution play a greater role in determining value compared to the Contemporary sector – although they do not appear to have done so here.
Christie's marketing campaign stressed that the auction of Salvator Mundi was a never-to-be-repeated opportunity to acquire a painting by Leonardo. The videos, promotions, press releases and mega-exhibitions staged around the world, seemed to drown out any noise created from the fact the work's history and condition was not ideal.
With its identity lost over the centuries, the painting had sold at Sotheby's in 1958 as a work by an unknown artist for £45. It made its away to the US where it remained unrecognised before being "rediscovered" by a small group of American dealers at a regional auction house in 2005.
The American dealers then sold it privately via an $80m deal brokered by Sotheby’s in 2013 to Swiss ‘Freeports’ baron Yves Bouvier. Bouvier then swiftly ‘flipped’ it to Rybolovlev, making a profit of over $40m in the process.
Bouvier and Rybolovlev later became involved in an intense legal battle which began in 2015 with Rybolovlev alleging he had been overcharged on a series of purchases made through Bouvier, including Salvator Mundi. While Bouvier has strenuously denied the allegations, Rybolovlev has since sold other works in his collection through Christie’s.
A detailed timeline of the picture’s colourful history – from its commission for Louis XII of France in c.1500 to its unveiling as a new discovery in 2011 is available to ATG digital subscribers here.
In terms of attribution, no artist generates more academic debate than Leonardo. While a few naysayers expressed doubts, for instance pointing to the fact that Christ’s orb seemingly does not refract the light passing through it, the “broad consensus” of scholarly opinion was that Salvator Mundi was painted by Leonardo, according to Christie’s.
After it was bought at the estate auction for under $10,000 by the American dealers (including Alex Parish and Robert Simon), the ‘consortium’ embarked on a six year research project which culminated in it being unveiled to the public in 2011 as a fully attributed work at an exhibition at The National Gallery in London.
The catalogue stated: “Of the roughly 20 known contemporary copies of Salvator Mundi, some of which are by pupils or followers of Leonardo and some almost certainly emanating from his workshop, none is of a level of quality to support an attribution to the master himself.” This version of Salvator Mundi though was deemed to be the lost original.
The work, a 2ft 2in x 18in (66 x 45cm) oil on walnut panel, had endured plenty of wear and tear over the centuries as well various attempts at restoration. While the Old Master market favours works either in or close to their original state, this picture, while certainly not ‘untouched’, had areas which were deemed to have survived relatively well.
Christie’s told ATG before the sale that “significant areas remain in fine condition and many of the most important elements of the picture – the blessing hand, the orb, Christ's vestments, the curls in his hair – are remarkably intact.”
However, old attempts to restore the Salvator Mundi by inserting areas of stucco fill where the original panel had split led to areas of flaking and paint loss. The panel had thinned and was glued to another backing, perhaps as early as the 17th century, and attempts had been made to disguise the old repairs with areas of crude overpaint.
Recent restoration of the painting (undertaken in 2007 by Dianne Dwyer Modestini, Senior Research Fellow and Conservator of the Kress Program in Paintings Conservation at the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University) had reduced the visual impact of those areas where losses were once evident. But, under close examination, the split in the panel could be seen to the left of Christ’s head, losses are visible in the background and scattered areas of abrasion were noticeable throughout.
Leonardo’s auction history
Depending which academic you speak to, only 15-20 paintings by Leonardo are known to exist, nearly all of them in museum collections apart from Salvator Mundi. The last ‘discovery’ of a work by Leonardo was the Benois Madonna, now in the Hermitage in St Petersburg, which came to light in 1909.
This means that there is really no market precedent for the current sale to make a meaningful price comparison. However, a few drawings and manuscripts by Leonardo have appeared at auction in the last 30 years:
- In 1994, Bill Gates paid $30.8m (including premium) at Christie’s for the ‘Codex Hammer’ notebook, containing 300 drawings and scientific writings.
- In 2001, a silverpoint study of a horse and rider (a preparatory study for Leonardo’s unfinished masterpiece The Adoration of the Magi) set the highest price for a Leonardo drawing at auction when it was knocked down at $11.5m (£7.4m) in a Christie’s 2001 auction.
- A drawing of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian which was recently attributed to Leonardo was consigned to Paris saleroom Tajan and scheduled to be auctioned in June 2017. However, the auction was suspended after the drawing was declared a national treasure by the French state, giving a 30-month period for a national museum the option to acquire it.