Why Critics Are Skeptical About the Record-Smashing $450 Million da Vinci

While the sale of “Salvator Mundi” has generated a considerable amount of excitement, there are doubts about its authenticity

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Leonardo da Vinci's 'Salvator Mundi' Christie's

"Salvator Mundi," a 500-year-old painting of Christ believed to be the work of Leonardo da Vinci, sold for $450.3 million at an auction in New York on Wednesday night. As Edward Helmore of the Guardian reports, the painting’s hefty price tag makes it the most expensive work of art ever sold—either privately or at auction.

Bidding for the piece started at $100 million, and after a tense 20 minutes, it sold for $400 million at Christie’s in New York. Fees bring the grand total of the piece up to $450.3 million.  Christie’s has not identified the anonymous buyer, or even said where he or she resides.

According to a Christie’s press release, the previous record for a work by an Old Master belonged to "Massacre of the Innocents" by Peter Paul Rubens, which sold for $76.7 million in 2002. The sale of "Salvator Mundi" (or “Savior of the World”) also surpasses the $300 million paid for a Paul Gauguin in a private sale. Intriguingly, Christie’s sold the da Vinci piece during its Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, grouping it with a Basquiat and Warhol—probably, writes Will Gomptez of the BBC, because “big money comes into the room nowadays when Pollocks and Twomblys are on the block, and promptly leaves when the Reynolds and Winterhalters arrive.”

The record-smashing work depicts Christ with curling locks, clutching a crystal orb in his left hand and raising a hand in benediction. "Salvator Mundi" is believed to be one of about 20 da Vinci oil paintings that have survived to the present-day, and the last one that is held by a private collector.

According to Christie’s, the piece was painted in approximately 1500, possibly for King Louis XII of France. By 1625, it had landed in the collection of King Charles I of England. In the late 17th century the work vanished, only to resurface in 1900, when it was acquired by Sir Charles Robinson. At that time, "Salvator Mundi" was labeled as the work of da Vinci’s follower, Bernardino Luini. And in 1958, it disappeared once again.

The painting was rediscovered nearly 50 years later at a regional auction in the United States. “[I]ts new owners move forward with care and deliberation in cleaning and restoring the painting, researching and thoroughly documenting it, and cautiously vetting its authenticity with the world’s leading authorities,” Christie’s writes. Since then, "Salvator Mundi" has been passed between a roster of art dealers. Prior to the auction, it was owned by the Russian billionaire Dmitry E. Rybolovlev.

While the sale of "Salvator Mundi" has generated a considerable amount of excitement—people flocked to Christie’s exhibition space in Rockefeller Center when the work was temporarily displayed there—there are doubts about its authenticity. In a salty piece for Vulture, art critic Jerry Saltz opines that the painting looks like “a dreamed-up version of a missing da Vinci” and is “absolutely dead.”

“Its surface is inert, varnished, lurid, scrubbed over, and repainted so many times that it looks simultaneously new and old,” Saltz writes.

It is true that the work has been extensively painted over throughout the years—and that some attempts to revive it were “crude and distorting,” as a Christie’s report puts it. But there may be other reasons to question "Salvator Mundi"'s origins. “Experts estimate that there are only 15 to 20 existing da Vinci paintings,” Saltz writes. “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.”

Other experts disagree. Phillip Hook, Sotheby’s senior international specialist in Impressionist and modern art, tells Eileen Kinsella of artnet News, that experts generally accept that there is “quite a lot of painting by Leonardo, but, over time, it has had to be restored, and now quite a lot of it is later restorers’ paint.” Still, he notes, “There are passages of it by Leonardo; enough passages for it to be sold as a Leonardo.”

And that, it seems, was enough for one art lover with very, very deep pockets.

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