The Da Vinci mystery: $450m Salvator Mundi is not really his
World’s most expensive work of art downgraded to Leonardo’s B list — painted under his supervision
It is a saga worthy of the most far-fetched plotlines in a Dan Brown thriller — a long-lost painting of a beatific Christ, bought for a pittance, is declared to be the work of Leonardo da Vinci and sold at auction for a record $450 million (pounds 342 million) to an Arab prince.
Ever since, the world’s most expensive painting has divided the art world.
Some stood before it described the experience as transcendent; others dismissed it as the work of Leonardo’s assistants — not a very good painting, let alone a genuine Leonardo.
The latest twist in the story of Salvator Mundi has come as the Prado Museum downgraded the painting, saying that rather than being authentic it was only attributed to, authorized by or supervised by Leonardo. At best, it may bear just a few brush strokes from the Renaissance genius.
The downgrading, which is likely to have a dramatic effect on its value, was revealed by The Art Newspaper. The questioning of the work’s provenance is contained in a catalogue for an exhibition at the Prado in Madrid, Leonardo and the Copy of the Mona Lisa.
The museum’s decision “represents the most critical response from a leading museum since the Christie’s sale [of the portrait in 2017]”, The Art Newspaper said. It was then that the work was bought by Prince Badr bin Abdullah, the Saudi culture minister.
The exhibition at the Prado revolves around “the nature of the copies and works executed in the bottega vinciana [Leonardo’s workshop],” the catalogue explains. “There were moments when Leonardo found it difficult to paint due to his perfectionism and his numerous other occupations, and his pupils undertook the task for him.”
The catalogue has two lists — one for paintings “by Leonardo” and another for “attributed works or authorised and supervised by Leonardo”.
The portrait bought by the Saudis is in the latter list.
The downgrading will be viewed as vindication by experts who always questioned the authenticity of the painting, and be embarrassing to those who insisted it was Leonardo’s work. The catalogue includes an essay by Vincent Delieuvin, curator of a 2019 Leonardo retrospective, who says that parts of the Salvator Mundi are “of surprisingly poor quality”.
The current whereabouts of the painting is a mystery. There have been rumours that it is stashed somewhere in Saudi Arabia or kept in a tax-free zone in Switzerland, or is on Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s mega-yacht.
Mr Delieuvin says it should be brought out of the shadows. “It is to be hoped that a future permanent display of the work will allow it to be reanalysed with greater objectivity,” he wrote.
Whether the Saudis will now want their money back or will seek some sort of legal redress is not yet known.
The painting of Christ, the title of which translates to “Saviour of the World”, dates to around 1500 but went missing for a couple of centuries. Badly restored, it was traded several times before turning up in a New Orleans auction house in 2005. Bought by dealers for just $1,175 (pounds 875), it was cleaned by a restorer who began to think it might be a genuine Leonardo. It was sold in 2013 to a Russian oligarch for $127 million before going on sale at Christie’s in 2017.