Five years since the $450m Salvator Mundi sale: a first-hand account of the nonsensical auction

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It was like being at a very expensive, very exclusive firework display. Eventually, after more than 18 minutes of grinding competition between clients on telephones, the buyer saw off the opposition with a winning “jump” bid of $400m, topping the previous by a monster $30 million. The audience gasped and whooped as if they’d just seen a rocket explode high above their heads.

Moments later, the heavily restored panel painting of the Salvator Mundi, catalogued by Christie’s as a rediscovered masterwork by Leonardo da Vinci, was knocked down to thunderous applause for $450.3m with fees, more than four times its estimate of $100m. Until then, no artwork had sold for more than $200m at auction.

I was in that packed and rapt Manhattan auction room on 15 November 2017, reporting the sale for the New York Times. I struggled to make sense of that result then. I still struggle now.

It’s not often that journalists become part of the story that they themselves are covering. But this is what happened, after I revealed in March 2014, in the New York Times, that the Salvator Mundi had been sold by the New York dealers Robert Simon and Alexander Parish for between $75m and $80m in a private sale brokered by Sotheby’s the previous year.

Several months later, unbeknownst to me, the article was noticed by the Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, who had bought the Salvator Mundi for $127.5m through his trusted Swiss art adviser and agent, Yves Bouvier, back in 2013. The discovery of this $47.5m overpayment and other multi-million mark-ups prompted Rybolovlev to sue Bouvier, claiming losses of almost $1bn from his agent’s secret profits. Like Charles Dickens’s famous Jarndyce and Jarndyce suit in Bleak House, the litigation between the two men has dragged on for seven years now and shows no sign of reaching a definitive resolution.

Years earlier, I’d become aware of talk in the Old Master trade that an overpainted, under-catalogued “sleeper” of Christ as Saviour of the World bought by Parish and Simon at a routine estate auction in 2005 might turn out to be a long-lost Leonardo. Meticulous restoration by the distinguished conservator Dianne Modestini, followed by inclusion in the 2011-12 exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, at the National Gallery, in London, had seemed to vindicate Simon’s hunch purchase. This was surely the Salvator Mundi engraved by Wenceslas Hollar in 1650, thought to reproduce a Leonardo painting owned by Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I? Wasn’t it?

For me, scholarly speculation proved to be one thing, the experience of actually looking at the thing another. Viewing the Salvator Mundi for the first time, included in the National Gallery’s Leonardo show at the behest of its ambitious young curator Luke Syson, was a serious let-down. For a start, you didn’t need to know much about Leonardo to wonder why the most dynamic genius of the High Renaissance would want to create such an uncharacteristically static, frontal composition. Then there was the problem of the condition. The well-preserved blessing right hand was very fine, but the heavily repainted face of Christ had a ghostly fuzziness about it that for me, at least, was hopelessly off-putting.

Subsequent reading about the conservation of the work revealed that Modestini hadn’t so much restored the painting as given Christ facial reconstruction surgery. And yet for all the new pigment applied to the panel–over 60 percent of the top layer of paint has been lost, according to Ben Lewis’s scrupulously researched 2019 book, The Last Leonardo–the Saviour of the World still had a wonky right eye.

So, I couldn’t help but be bemused when people succumbed to “Stendhal Syndrome” and burst into tears in front of this problematic object, when it was put on display (having undergone further cosmetic work by Modestini) in a sepulchral viewing chamber at Christie’s in New York before its sale by Rybolovlev’s family trust in 2017.

Christie’s ran a brilliant marketing campaign. Not only did they cleverly widen the bidder base by including the Salvator Mundi in one of their marquee evening sales of contemporary art (there was plenty of joshing that Modestini’s restoration had turned it into a contemporary painting anyway). But they also hired the advertising agency Droga5, who came up with the idea of hyping the painting as “The Last Da Vinci” (not Leonardo). I noticed the campaign used graphics strongly reminiscent of those used for the 2006 movie, The Da Vinci Code, based on the best-selling novel by Dan Brown.

“You see what you want to see,” says Tom Hanks, playing Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor of Religious Symbology, in the film when pooh-poohing the theory that the androgynous figure of St. John in Leonardo’s Last Supper is in fact Mary Magdalene.

People wanted to see a Da Vinci at Christie’s, and Christie’s made sure there was absolutely no doubt that that was what they thought they were seeing. The 160-page catalogue for the Salvator Mundi talked of an “unusually uniform scholarly consensus that the painting is an autograph work” and any suggestion that studio assistants might have been involved was expunged. That would have cut several zeros off the price. The usual terms of sale, differentiating works that are “in Christie’s opinion a work by the artist” from those that it thinks are “probably a work by the artist in whole or in part”, were absent from the catalogue.

In the end, for all the hype and hokum, the Salvator Mundi made $450.3m, so surely it must be a genuine Leonardo da Vinci?

But the fact remains that there is no conclusive way of determining that this was a painting executed “in whole” by Leonardo. There isn’t a single reference in the artist’s own lifetime mentioning that he made a painting of the Salvator Mundi. The curators, scholars and art trade professionals who have assessed this painting were, like their 19th- and 20th-century predecessors, judging the work primarily by eye. That judgment hasn’t been made easier by the large quantities of 21st-century paint covering the panel. Christie’s cataloguing stressed the “unusually uniform scholarly consensus” that the Salvator Mundi is an autograph rediscovery by Leonardo. Yet if that really were the case, why did the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, the Hermitage in St Petersburg and other renowned institutions turn down the chance to buy this supposed masterpiece before its sale to Rybolovlev in 2013? Four years later, when asked in a French radio interview if the Louvre should have acquired the Salvator Mundi, the museum’s then-director, Jean-Luc Martinez, said “non”.

We now know that the winning bidder being applauded at Christie’s in 2017 was Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince of Saudi Arabia. Last year, investigating US intelligence agencies concluded the prince had approved the brutal murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. The $700m that the Saudi government recently offered to pay Tiger Woods to play on its sport-washing LIV golf tour renders the $430m price tag for the Salvator Mundi pretty meaningless.

But we also know that on the way to making that record high, this auction “sleeper,” originally bought online for just $1,175 at an auction in New Orleans, has made a succession of individuals and companies formidable amounts of money. According to Artnet, the billionaire collector Paul Chen, who guaranteed the successful sale of the Salvator Mundi at the Christie’s auction, made $135m by simply saying “bid” down a telephone. The Saviour of the World has been a peerlessly successful vehicle for human greed.

But why did Mohammed bin Salman want to buy this supposed masterwork of Christian religious art? What is he going to do with the most expensive artwork in the world? Where is it now? Will we ever see it again so we can see what we want to see? Surely someone knows if this was painted by Leonardo or not?

Better call Langdon, that Harvard professor of Religious Symbology. He’ll sort it out.

• Read all of our coverage on the Salvator Mundi here and read our special coverage on the five-year anniversary of the sale here

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