“Salvator Mundi is a painting of the most iconic figure in the world by the most important artist of all time.” –Loic Gouzer, Chairman, Post-War and Contemporary Art, Christie’s, New York
Christie’s held an unveiling Thursday morning revealing two blockbuster consignments for its upcoming November contemporary evening sale; a massive 60-panel Andy Warhol Last Supper painting with an estimate of $50 million. Also, Leonardo da Vinci‘s stunning and last known masterpiece, Salvator Mundi, which carries an eye-popping estimate of $100 million, which might be easily smashed, considering it dates from around 1500 and is one of fewer than 20 known works by the artist, and reportedly the last in private hands. It was first recorded in the collection of King Charles (1600-1649), passed through an auction in 1763 and rediscovered in 2005. In 2011, it was exhibited at the National Gallery in London.
The da Vinci has been consigned by the Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, a representative for the family’s trust. He bought the work in 2013 for a reported $127.5 million. (Christie’s has stated only that the work comes from a private European collection.)
Explaining why the Leonardo was auctioned alongside the Warhol in the contemporary sale, Gouzer said it reflects the “dialogue between these two artists” as well as Christie’s propensity for pushing boundaries and “disrupting” sale categories.
The painting was long thought to be a work by a follower of Leonardo and was sold at Sotheby’s London in 1958 for only $75. It has been vetted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and deemed authentic.
Since it resurfaced, Salvator Mundi has been involved in several overlapping and complicated legal battles. The work incited a long-running fight between Rybolovlev and his former art advisor Yves Bouvier, who bought the work in 2013 in a sale brokered by Sotheby’s for “between $75 million and $80 million,” according to the New York Times. Bouvier then flipped it to Rybolovlev for far more than he paid.
The Leonardo was on display for just two hours at Christie’s before it began a worldwide tour, including Hong Kong, San Francisco, and London, before it returned to New York for the November 15 evening sale tomorrow.
But some experts suggest that the painting might fall short of price expectations because of doubts about the attribution. Frank Zöllner, an author of the most recent Leonardo da Vinci catalogue raisonné published in 2015, included the painting under the heading “Leonardo da Vinci and Workshop (?),” and called the attribution “controversial.”
Carmen Bambach, curator of Italian and Spanish drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in a 2012 article published in Apollo magazine, wrote that the work was
“an important addition to the scholarship, but requires a more qualified description, for its severely damaged original painting surface exhibits large portions of recent integration.”
After having studied and followed the picture during its conservation treatment over six years from 2005 to 2011, and seeing it in the National Gallery, she concluded, referring to Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, one of Leonardo’s pupils that
“much of the original painting surface may be by Boltraffio, but with passages done by Leonardo himself.”
Martin Kemp, Emeritus Research Professor in the History of Art at Oxford University and a leading expert on da Vinci, said in an interview that the work is “convincingly by Leonardo,” and that the six years of restoration work and substantial technical analysis conducted by Dianne Dwyer Modestini only supported his certainty about the attribution. Kemp, Margaret Dalivalle, and Robert Simon co-authored Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi and the Collecting of Leonardo in the Stuart Courts, which Oxford University Press will publish next year.
But it’s almost never possible to achieve universal consensus with Old Masters. There are usually dissenters like New York magazine’s Jerry Saltz who just wrote a piece entitled, “Christie’s Is Selling This Painting for $100 Million. They Say It’s by Leonardo. I Have My Doubts. Big Doubts.” You can read them here.
“This kind of salesmanship is an old game: pure and simple greed, an irresponsible knowing flimflam that defrauds a mass audience into thinking it is ‘appreciating’ an old master when it’s all smoky spectacle and mirrors.“
Kemp further says,
“To say that it’s a controversial attribution is absolutely wrong. There have been a few doubters but for a new Leonardo to achieve such a general consensus is very remarkable.”
For the record Les Femmes d’Alger by Pablo Picasso was sold at Christie’s in New York for $181.2 on May 11, 2015, making it the most ever paid at auction. But Interchange by Willem de Kooning (also painted in 1955) was sold privately by David Geffen in September of the same year for a reported $300 million.