Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! This week, I’m continuing one of my newest series: Art History Mysteries! For this second installment, I’m discussing the most expensive painting ever sold at auction: Salvator Mundi by none other than Leonardo da Vinci. It was sold at auction in 2017 for a shocking $450 million! But, it hasn’t been seen since! So, to learn more, keep on reading!
What is Salvator Mundi?
Before we get started, it’s important to understand both the subject and history of this piece. Salvator Mundi means “Savior of the World” and was a popular way to depict Jesus Christ during the Medieval and Renaissance periods. It is meant to show Him as the all powerful
ruler of the world. In this guise, Jesus is often shown facing the viewer straight on and with a globe or orb in His hand.
Salvator Mundi was created around the year 1500. It was possibly commissioned by French King Louis XII while Leonardo was living and working in the Duchy of Milan. Art historians believe that it was used as a private devotional piece because of its size and lack of other figures, like those you would see in an altarpiece.
In the 17th century, it ended up in the art collection of King Charles I of England. It is likely that this piece was a part of Queen Henrietta Maria’s dowry when she came from France to marry the king. After Charles’ execution in 1649, the work was seemingly sold off into private hands. A gilded frame was added at some point during the Victorian era and numerous copies had popped up over the years.
In 1958, the work finally resurfaced. Sir Francis Cook, 4th Baronet Cook sold it at auction for a mere £45! Salvator Mundi had been the victim of poor restoration attempts and age, so it’s not surprising that it wasn’t immediately recognized as a Leonardo.
Over the next fifty years, the work changed hands again, finally ending up in the hands of Baton Rouge businessman Basil Clovis Hendry Sr. Alexander Parrish and Robert Simon, Old Masters Dealers, thought it might be something special, even a treasure. So, they bid on it. They won with a mere $1,000.
As I mentioned earlier, the work had suffered over the centuries. So, Dianne Dwyer Modestini and Monica Griesbach were hired to restore it. They did a wonderful job and in 2012, the work was authenticated as Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci.
In 2013, Parrish and Simon sold the work to Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier for $75 million in a private sale. Bouvier immediately turned it around and sold it to a Russian collector Dmitry Rybolovlev for $127.5 million. In recent months, Rybolovlev has contended that he was swindled and there is an ongoing lawsuit. (I’ve linked an article all about it below.)
The BIG Sale
On November 15, 2017 at Christie’s New York, there was a thrill in the air! For several months, the Salvator Mundi had travelled around the world to Hong Kong, London, and San Francisco where art lovers and collectors were encouraged to see the rare masterpiece. But, the work had finally arrived back in New York for sale. For a thrilling seven minutes (which you can watch on YouTube - I’ve linked it down below), the price went up and up and up! Finally, the gavel went down and the final sale price was announced: $450,312,500 ($400 million, plus $50.3 million in fees). This was the highest price ever paid for a work of art!
At first it was a mystery of who bought the piece. However, the Wall Street Journal soon identified Saudi Arabian prince Badr bin Abdullah as the buyer. The prince was working on behalf of Abu Dhabi's Department of Culture and Tourism for display at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. But soon, the work would disappear from sight and the mystery would begin!
Salvator Mundi was set to be the center point of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, but its grand reveal was pushed back several times until it was fully cancelled. The Louvre in Paris was supposed to receive the work for a 2019 show, but again, it was cancelled. This led people to wonder, what really happened to da Vinci’s work? A news report at the time stated: A news report said "no one knows where it is, and there are grave concerns for its physical safety."
At first, there were a few reports that the painting was being held on one of the prince’s yachts, but there were no confirmed sightings or reports that came from it. Others believe it is being held at a Swiss free port. These highly secure and secretive buildings are quite popular with the rich as they allow assets to be hidden away without questions or taxation. As of June 2021, there have been no confirmed sightings of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi.
Robert King Wittman, founder of the FBI art crime team said in a June 2021 Guardian article: “Why anyone would pay that kind of money for a piece that had questions about it is very strange. That particular painting is not worth what was paid for it. So there is a suspicious aspect to it. And the provenance is very murky.” So, it’s important to ask the question: is it even a real Leonardo?
A complicated and crazy story, the disappearance is one of the many twists and turns of Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi! Wherever it is, and I know I am not alone in hoping that it’s safe, there is a possibility that it will resurface someday!
I highly recommend the book The Last Leonardo: The Secret Lives of the World's Most Expensive Painting by Ben Lewis. It’s a great, in depth examination of both the painting and the mystery. I’ve linked it below!
Sources and Images
The Last Leonardo: The Secret Lives of the World's Most Expensive Painting by Ben Lewis
(Affiliate link) https://bookshop.org/a/17007/9781984819253
Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
The work after cleaning but before full restoration. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons