The failure of the Dallas Museum of Art in its ambitious attempt to raise more than $100m to buy Leonardo’s recently rediscovered Salvator Mundi raises questions about the work’s future: will another museum now attempt to buy it?
If Dallas had been successful, the sum would have been the highest paid for an Old Master, and the work would have been the most expensive bought by any museum.
The painting was unveiled at the exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan” at London’s National Gallery in November 2011, with research demonstrating that it was the original version. Until then, it was believed to be a painting after a pupil of Leonardo’s (it sold with this attribution at Sotheby’s in London for £45 in 1958). Since the London show, the new attribution has been widely accepted.
After the exhibition closed last February, the Salvator Mundi returned to its owner: an entity called R.W. Chandler, owned by a small number of Americans. The main share is believed to be held by one person, and two New York dealers, Robert Simon and Alexander Parish, also have an interest in the painting.
In July, the director of the Dallas Museum of Art, Maxwell Anderson, asked to borrow the picture for possible purchase, but not for display. He later said that “tens of millions” had been raised, but this was insufficient. Sources close to the owners say they lowered their initial price, believed to be nearly $200m, and the eventual sum with tax concessions was “well over $100m”.
When the UK-based Cook family sold the Salvator Mundi in 1958, it was regarded as an undistinguished copy of Leonardo’s lost original and catalogued as “after Giovanni Boltraffio”. Bought for £45 by a Mr Kuntz, it then passed to a US collector and was sold in 2005. The current owners are unwilling to disclose the circumstances, but it was probably sold privately through a dealer or possibly in a local auction. The quality of the paintwork in some areas then raised the question of whether it might actually be Leonardo’s long-lost original (known through a 1650 engraving by Hollar).
Through technical examination, connoisseurship and provenance research, it has been established that the Salvator Mundi, around 1500, is highly likely to be Leonardo’s original. Among the numerous scholars who accept it are David Brown, Keith Christiansen, David Ekserdjian, Martin Kemp, Pietro Marani, Nicholas Penny and Luke Syson.
The only serious question about Leonardo’s involvement has been raised by Carmen Bambach, a curator at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Writing in Apollo, she said that “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” (a comment that suggests the face is by Boltraffio).
How does one price such a work? With the removal of disfiguring overpaint and judicious retouching of losses, it now shows something of Leonardo’s quality, but most importantly (in financial terms), it has his name. Only around 15 fully accepted paintings by Leonardo exist, and they are all in museums. However, the condition of the Salvator Mundi is problematic. Syson has written that the painting has been “aggressively overcleaned”, possibly in the early 17th century, and the face and hair of Christ are abraded. Although the work has been retouched, an undamaged Leonardo would be worth considerably more.
“The museum made a formal offer, and after several weeks of negotiation, the owners decided to decline,” Maxwell Anderson says. The dealer Robert Simon plans to continue working on the book he is editing, The Lost Christ of Leonardo. This was on hold while the Dallas sale was under discussion, but Simon hopes that it will be published by Yale University Press, possibly late this year.
What next for the Salvator Mundi? Only a handful of museums around the world could even contemplate buying a work priced at more than $100m. There are not many more private collectors who can spend that sum, and most focus on Modern and contemporary art. The owners of the Leonardo probably have three main options: reduce the price, lend the picture to a major museum or hide it away in a bank vault.
Correction: The photograph of Tim Marlow and Fiona Shaw in front of Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi (February, p3) should have been credited to Phil Grabsky’s exhibitionscreen.com.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'What now for the £45 Da Vinci?'