Leonardo lost to view: Rediscovered masterpiece remains in private hands

Salvator Mundi has been sold to a collector, months after Dallas Museum of Art made a similar offer



Six months before Leonardo’s recently discovered painting Salvator Mundi, around 1500, was sold in a private transaction through Sotheby’s, the Dallas Museum of Art had offered to buy it for almost the same price. The Leonardo sold for around $75m to $80m, a near record sum for an Old Master.

A spokeswoman for the Dallas museum says that “the package with tax advantages we had been offering appears to have approximated the reported sale price”. The museum had proposed a cash and revenue-sharing arrangement, structured to reduce the seller’s taxable income. If its earlier offer had been accepted, the picture would have been “acquired for the benefit and enjoyment of the public”, she says. The Dallas offer had been made in December 2012, while the private sale at Sotheby’s went ahead in May last year.

The Salvator Mundi had been previously sold for just £45, at Sotheby’s in 1958, as after Giovanni Boltraffio, a pupil of Leonardo. The master’s original was known from a 1650 engraving by Wenceslaus Hollar. Although dozens of early copies of Leonardo’s composition survive, his original was assumed to have been lost.

Following a death in the family of the 1958 American purchaser, the Leonardo “copy” was quietly sold in 2005. The new owner then pursued the possibility that the Sotheby’s picture could be the missing original. This was confirmed by specialists, and it was unveiled at the National Gallery’s Leonardo exhibition in London in November 2011.

The lender to the show was anonymous, but the loan was made through an entity called “R.W. Chandler”. The main stake was believed to be held by a single individual, probably an American, while two New York dealers (Robert Simon and Alexander Parish) also had an interest. Initially they are believed to have asked $200m from the Dallas museum, although this price was quickly negotiated downwards.

The $75m to $80m paid by the new owner for Salvator Mundi could represent the record dollar price for an Old Master painting, though this would not take inflation into account. In 2002, Kenneth Thomson paid $77m at Sotheby’s for Rubens’ Massacre of the Innocents, 1611-12, which he donated to Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario. A year later the Getty Museum in Los Angeles bought Titian’s Portrait of Alfonso d’Avalos, 1533, in a private sale, reputedly for $70m. The National Gallery in London and the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh jointly purchased Titian’s Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto, both 1556-59, in 2009 and 2012 for £50m and £45m (exchange rates at the time meant that both sums equated to around $71m). In 2011, Holbein the Younger’s Darmstadt Madonna, 1526, was bought privately by Reinhold Würth for his museum in Schwäbish Hall, Germany, for around €55m (then $75m).

For the Dallas museum there has been one “happy legacy” of losing the Leonardo, its director, Maxwell Anderson, says. Marguerite Hoffman, the widow of the Dallas businessman Robert Hoffman, who had offered a donation towards the Salvator Mundi, instead gave a $17m endowment to support pre-1700 acquisitions.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Leonardo lost to view'