In 2005, a small auction house in New Orleans sold a painting at auction labeled at Lot 664. The description of the item was simply, “Christ Salvator Mundi. Oil on cradled panel.”
The painting was sold for $1,000.
Twelve years later, the same painting was sold at Christie’s in New York for a record $450 million dollars.
Learn more about Salvator Mundi, the world’s most expensive painting, and the controversy surrounding it, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
This episode is sponsored by the Tourist Office of Spain.
If you are interested in seeing or studying great works of art, your travels will eventually take you to Spain, which is home to some of the world’s greatest artistic achievements.
Madrid has Picasso’s masterpiece, Guernica at the Reina Sofia. In Madrid you can also find the Garden of Love by Peter Paul Rubens at the Prado, and the Portrait of King Henry VIII by Hans Holbein at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.
In Figueres, you can view the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln at the Salvador Dali Museum.
In Bilbao, you can study “The Renowned Orders Of The Night” by Anselm Kiefer at the Guggenheim Museum.
And finally, you can view some of humanity’s oldest art in the cave of Altamira.
You can start planning your artistic adventure in Spain by going to spain.info, where you can get all of the information you need to plan your trip.
Once again, that’s Spain.info.
The story of Salvator Mundi is a fascinating one that touches so many different areas of the world of art and exposes many of its potential problems.
Salvator Mundi is a painting that is estimated to be around 500 years old. It is an image of Christ wearing a blue robe. His right hand is held up with his thumb and his first two fingers extended. In his left hand, he is holding a crystal, transparent glass sphere. The background is solid black.
The painting is on a walnut panel, it is painted with oil-based paint, and the dimensions of the image are 45.4 × 65.6 centimeters or 25.8 × 19.2 inches.
Oh, and it was believed to have been painted by Leonardo Da Vinci.
That last bit is what makes this painting so valuable.
Da Vinci is probably the best-known painter in history, and his career went well beyond painting. He was a scientist and a naturalist, and his life was fascinating. The guys over at the Renaissance Times podcast have done 17 hours on Da Vinci so far, and they aren’t even close to being done. Go and check it out.
It isn’t just that Da Vinci is famous, which would be enough to make his painting expensive. It is the fact that there are so few of them. The number of paintings which can be attributed to Da Vinci is less than twenty, and the authenticity of many of those have been debated by art experts.
Very few works of Da Vinci, and that includes sketches and drawings, are in private hands. When anything created by Leonardo comes up for auction, which happens very rarely, it usually sets a record.
If you remember back to my episode about Liechtenstein, the Liechtenstein family sold the portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci in 1967 for $5 million dollars, which was a record at the time.
Bill Gates purchased the Codex Leicester, which was a notebook from Da Vinci, in 1994 for a record $30 million dollars.
In July 2021, a tiny sketch of a bear head by Leonardo the size of a Post-It Note, sold at auction for $12 million dollars.
So, if the works of Da Vinci are so expensive, how in the world did one sell for $1,000 at an auction in 2005?
That answer is easy. No one thought that it was created by Da Vinci.
The painting that was sold in 2005 was sold by a businessman from Baton Rouge by the name of ??Basil Clovis Hendry Sr.
The painting was in really bad shape. There were very large and significant scratches on the painting. There also was evidence of painting over the original painting in a very poor attempt at restoring the image.
The existence of a Da Vinci Salvator Mundi is something that has been noted at various times in history. Salvator Mundi simply means “savior of the world” and it has been a subject of European art for centuries.
There are over 30 surviving versions of Salvator Mundi that were created by Da Vinci’s students or his admirers. This is not uncommon. There are also versions of the Mona Lisa which were created by his students and his followers.
The first documented occurrence of Salvator Mundi dates to 1638 when it was listed in the inventory of the Duke of Hamilton’s estate in London. He was later executed in the English Civil War and the painting was sold
In 1649, it was listed in the possessions of Henrietta Maria, the wife of Charles I, who was executed. The royal collection of art was then sold by the new English government.
The painting was purchased by a friend of the crown and given back to Charles II when the monarchy was restored.
A Bohemian artist by the name of Wenceslaus Hollar created an engraving of the painting around 1650 and published it in a book. The engraving is shockingly similar to the painting sold in 2005. Hollar noted in the book that his engraving was based on the original painting from Leonardo Da Vinci.
The painting was then passed to James II, who gave it to his mistress who gave it to their illegitimate son, the Duke of Buckingham, who gave it to his illegitimate son, who then sold it at auction around 1763.
From this point, the painting just disappeared from the record.
Tracking the history of a painting’s possession from creation to the present is called an artwork’s provenance. Establishing the provenance of a painting is extremely important in establishing value and legitimacy.
For example, the Mona Lisa has a very strong provenance. It was painted by Da Vinci, there are several records of other people seeing it, it was given to the King of France after Leonardo’s death, and it has been in the possession of the French state ever since.
When Salvator Mundi appeared in 2005, its listing in the auction book declared it to be by an associate of Da Vinci.
A consortium of art dealers who were on the hunt for overlooked works of art took notice of the painting. They thought that this might be the lost Da Vinci.
Given the potential upside, they figured they would take a gamble and bid on the painting. They were prepared to bid up to $10,000. However, they were the only bidder and they got the painting for $1,000.
They had two things they had to do. The first was to repair and restore the painting which was severely damaged. The second was to determine if this was in fact an actual Da Vinci.
As far as the restoration, they did a fantastic job. The restoration was overseen by Dianne Dwyer Modestini of New York University. They literally took the panels apart, and slowly, meticulously repaired the scratches, and cleaned up the layer of paint which have been put on top.
The restoration was controversial in itself. There were some who thought that it should just be left alone.
More work was done on the provenance of the painting. It was discovered that before it wound up in the possession of Basil Hendry, it was owned by his aunt who passed it on to him in 1987. She was a frequent visitor to Europe and would often buy art and antiques. She purchased it in London in 1958 for a whopping £45. The painting’s buyer was not identified, which is why no one knew it was in Louisiana.
The owner before that was Sir Francis Cook, who purchased it in 1900.
There is still a big gap in the provenance, but on either end of that gap it was owned by members of the English aristocracy. There is at least a consistent story, even if we don’t have all the facts.
Restoration work began in 2006 and by 2011 it was ready to be viewed by the art community and Leonardo experts.
The National Gallery in London declared it to be an original Leonardo and they eventually put it on display in an exhibition of original Leonardo works.
One of the world’s leading Da Vinci experts, Martin Kemp, declared it an original Leonardo.
Most experts who have studied the painting attribute it to Leonardo, or that he at least worked on the majority of the painting. Most of the debate has centered on if full or partial attribution should be given to Leonardo, but there were a few people who have completely denied any attribution.
In 2013, the consortium that purchased the painting for $1,000 sold it to Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier for $75 million dollars. He then turned around and sold it to Russian Oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev for US$127.5 million dollars.
The painting went up for auction in November 2017 by Christie’s in New York.
After an incredible 20-minute bidding frenzy, it sold for an astounding $450,312,500, including the commission.
The winner of the auction was anonymous, but it was later revealed to be Saudi Arabian prince Badr bin Abdullah.
There are very few people in the world who can afford to drop almost half a billion dollars on a painting.
Later the Wall Street Journal reported that he was actually acting as an intermediary for the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. However, Christies subsequently claimed that he was actually acting on behalf of the Abu Dhabi government, who intended to put the painting in the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Since the painting was sold in 2017, it hasn’t been seen in public. No one is sure where it is or what has become of it.
One theory is that it is sitting in an art warehouse in Geneva.
Another holds that it is on the private yacht of Mohammed bin Salman in the Red Sea.
Several art historians have expressed concern about the safety of the painting, but it is highly unlikely that someone would spend that much money on something, only to then immediately damage it.
Hopefully, it will soon be on public display, somewhere, where the world will be able to appreciate this painting.
Regardless if it is an actual Leonardo or not, it is a work of art with an incredible story.