Disappearing Leonardo: Quick Take on the Salvator Mundi downgrade

The market follows the artist. The artist does not follow the market.

Iimani David, author.

Recently, a painting that had been sold as an authentic Leonardo da Vinci in 2017 has been “downgraded” by the Prado Museum. So… how does a Leonardo disappear?

The Art Newspaper reported that the Prado, in a exhibition catalog, has downgraded the Salvator Mundi from being by the hand of the great Leonardo da Vinci, to being “attributed works, workshops or authorized and supervised by Leonardo,” in other words, done maybe in part by Leonardo, in the presence of Leonardo, or maybe he was in the room with it at some time. (that last part was sarcasm)

What is this thing?

Salvator Mundi sold at Christie’s in 2017 for $450M to Prince Badr bin Abdullah, Saudi Arabia’s culture minister.. The Prado Museum recently downgraded the painting’s attribution.

This is an oil painting on a wooden panel approximately 2 ft 2in x 1 ft 6 in. It portrays Jesus Christ as the Salvator Muni, Latin for “savior of the world.” It’s dated to sometime between 1499 to 1510. Jesus peers out from the frame, garbed in a blue robe and making the sign of the cross with his right hand. He holds a clear orb in his other hand. There are about thirty authenticated copies and variations of this painting by Leonardo’s followers, and drawings related to the painting are in the British Royal Collection. These thirty are copies of a presumed lost Leonardo original that probably dated to about 1500, and may have been lost in the early 1600s, though various copies have been claimed as the lost original at various times by various art historians.

By the way, this version of the Salvator Mundi (there are at least thirty of them) is sometimes referred to as the “Cook Version” after a previous owner, or as the Gulf version for its current presumed home in the Persian Gulf. For simplicity’s sake I will refer to it by the latter title.

In 2005, this Gulf version was bought by an art consortium in New York City from the estate of a Baton Rouge businessman, for about $1,175.

Wait. Full stop.

They bought a Leonardo for a grand?

No. They bought a very badly damaged and heavily overpainted Old Master painting that may or may not have been related to Leonard’s workshop. It was only during the process of stripping off the overpainting, and the restoration and cleaning that the possibly that Leonardo might have had his hands on it came to light. Thinking this might even be the lost original, they carefully proceeded with restoration.

After restoration it was authenticated, which is to say, some experts all got together and agreed it was most likely a real Leonardo painting. It was on display at the National Gallery in London as a Leonardo in 2011 to 2012, and later the Dallas Museum of Art also authenticated the work. At that point, it became a Leonardo. 

In 2013 it was sold to a Swiss art dealer for about $75 million, then sold in short order to Russian billionaire Dmitry E. Rybolovlev for about $127.5 million. That’s an increase in value of about $52.5 million in less than a year.  There were legal disputes over the work, with Rybolovlev bring suits against the dealer and the brokering auction house, Sotheby’s, for fraud and misrepresentation.

Famously the work, sold at a Christie’s auction in 2017 for a mind boggling $450 million. This sale made it the most expensive work of art to date. After this massive profit, Rybolovlev’s suits have been dropped. Although touted by the auction house as “the greatest artistic rediscovery of the last 100 years,” even as the gavel fell on the work, people were questioning its status as being by the Old Master’s hand. The buyer was Saudi culture minister Prince Badr bin Abdullah, who is presumed by many to be a stand in buyer for Prince Mohammed bin Salman. However Riyadh only names Badr as the owner. Since the purchase the work has not been publicly displayed, despite a 2018 planned opening for the piece at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, an event that was cancelled. The Louvre Abu Dhabi refused to allow the painting to be subjected to further testing and authentication.

In 2019 the Louvre (in Paris) held an unprecedented Leonardo exhibition, which did not include the Gulf Mundi. There was much speculation that the buyer(s) may have questioned the attribution even immediately after purchasing and might have felt embarrassment over spending almost half a billion dollars on something that probably wasn’t worth it. Then the recent downgrade of the Gulf Mundi in the exhibition catalog by the Prado seems to confirm judgment that the work is not an authentic original.

If it’s a workshop piece instead of an original then its value is probably in the realm of about $1.5 million dollars.

This shoddy piece of wood with cracked and restored paint lost about $448.5 million in value.

There has been no comment from the Saudi government on this development, and no announced plans to display the work in public.  The Leonardo has disappeared. 







The Prado downgrades the category of the ‘Salvator Mundi’ bought by a Saudi prince and doubts that Leonado da Vinci painted it





Published by Dr. EMS

Art history professor and lover of all things contemporary arts. Teaching and living in Zhejiang province, China.

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