The world’s most expensive painting has disappeared. Somewhere – perhaps in Switzerland, perhaps in the secure, tax-free bowels of an Asian freeport, perhaps in the private suite of a Middle Eastern potentate – Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi rests, not seen in public since it left Christie’s in May 2018, after fetching $450.3m.
Rumours swirl about its non-appearance. A fragile thing, has it been damaged in its travels? Are its owners so worried by growing doubts about whether it really is a Leonardo that they’re keeping it from view? Or do they not really care, having bought it at such an enormous price as a device to enable covert payment of a debt, as a slew of recent online conspiracy theories have proposed? According to Martin Kemp, emeritus research professor in the history of art at the University of Oxford, the world is full of “Leonardo loonies”. The Salvator, and its history, has given them rich pickings. Even Jeff Koons was gossiping about the picture’s whereabouts this month at his retrospective at the Ashmolean in Oxford.
The much-restored painting measures 25.8in by 19.2in, and is oil on walnut. Christ – the saviour of the world – has two fingers of his right hand raised in blessing, and a rock crystal orb in his left, signifying his mastery of the cosmos; his hair is long, his gaze direct. To its supporters, like Kemp, it is a wonderful picture that deals with the ineffable; to its detractors, it is flat and dull; to cynics, its central figure looks so like a stoned hippie that they have Photoshopped a joint between the upraised fingers.
But where it is and who it’s by are, to some extent, secondary issues. The modern-day saga of Salvator Mundi is about art as an asset class. About works of art that are bought and then left, unseen, in tax-free storage. About art that is used to demonstrate power and little else. About art as a colossally lucrative business in which dealers and the great auction houses ramp up value above and beyond levels that are sane. The art world is, most often, an opaque domain in which deals are done privately and prices never broadcast.
The flamboyance and the hype surrounding Salvator’s marketing and sale have let light in on a murky milieu. It has become a painting that symbolises not the redemptive power of art or the glory of the Renaissance, but one that stands for greed and financial packaging. No wonder one distinguished dealer had to be restrained by a colleague from exploding with rage to the cameras that waited outside Christie’s that November night in 2017 when that world record price was so spectacularly set.
This is not the first time Salvator has disappeared. Christie’s proposed a history that suggested it might have been commissioned from Leonardo by the French royal family and brought to England by Charles I’s wife, Henrietta Maria; two references are found to Leonardo in the collection of Charles I – “a peece of Christ” was one description weightily used in Christie’s marketing – and what is held to be Leonardo’s Salvator passed through various English hands until the late 18th century. It then disappeared for 140 years before re-emerging in 1900, when it was bought for the Cook Collection in Richmond, London, as a Luini; Luini being a follower of Leonardo. There it lingered until 1958, when it was sold at Sotheby’s, London, to an American couple for just £45 as a Boltraffio, another follower of Leonardo.
Again, it disappeared, this time for 47 years, until it was bought, on a hunch, at an estate sale in New Orleans for under $10,000 by two gallerists, Robert Simon and Alexander Parish. They, with another dealer, Warren Adelson, put the much overpainted and grimy work into the hands of Dianne Dwyer Modestini, who began to restore it; they started to believe it was a Leonardo. In 2007, it was shown to experts, including Nicholas Penny, shortly to become director of the National Gallery in London. It was there in 2008 that Kemp first saw the painting, when Penny gathered a high-powered group of experts to examine it. “And when you see something with real presence,” says Kemp, “it’s quite a moment.” Penny felt it had the “weirdness” he associated with Leonardo.
Consensus in its favour having been reached, it was unveiled to the public at the National Gallery’s major Leonardo show in 2011. Luke Syson, the show’s curator, called the painting “more remarkable than discovering a new planet”. But its reception was mixed. Personally, I thought it looked as though it belonged on the railings in Bayswater Road. One connoisseur told me it was “probably by Leonardo, but it’s a wreck”; another anonymity-seeking expert added that “even wrecks should create vibrations”, and the Salvator didn’t. Exhibiting it was controversial for other reasons: inclusion gave it authority, and it’s not thought proper that the National Gallery should bestow its imprimatur on a work that’s up for sale. According to Kemp, the gallery was assured that the painting was “not actively on the market”.
This didn’t stop the Dallas Museum of Art considering it for purchase in 2012. This coveted sale (and, it’s believed, others) did not come off and, in 2013, Robert Simon and his colleagues – “exhausted”, Simon told Tortoise, “after a huge investment of our energies, time and money” – sold it through Sotheby’s to Yves Bouvier, a Swiss freeport mogul and art transporter, for $80.5m. Bouvier promptly sold it to Dmitry Rybolovlev, a Russian potash billionaire, for $127.5m, having already sold the Russian a claimed $2bn of art, Klimts, Picassos and Modiglianis included.
Rybolovlev – pronounced Rib-ol-ov-lov – felt, he told me when I interviewed him last year, “a very special energy emanating from the picture” the first time he saw it, propped up on an armchair in the library of his family’s Central Park West apartment. It was, he said, his favourite painting, and he was having the study in his Monaco apartment remodelled for it to hang in. In the meantime, it was stored in the Singapore freeport, which Bouvier owned.
But then Rybolovlev and Bouvier fell out, bitterly, and court cases ensued. Essentially, Rybolovlev says Bouvier was solely his agent, owed 2 per cent on any transaction he and Rybolovlev engaged in, whereas Bouvier says he was a dealer, perfectly at liberty to charge Rybolovlev whatever the Russian would pay. Thus, Rybolovlev would have expected to pay Bouvier 2 per cent of the $80.5m Bouvier paid for the Salvator; instead Bouvier added $47m to the cost, which he took as profit. In toto, the Russian says, he paid $2bn for art for which Bouvier paid $1bn.
This, Rybolovlev told me, “tainted” the Salvator, and he put it up for sale with Christie’s. The auction house marketed it across the globe, trumpeting it not quite accurately as “the last Leonardo” in private hands – the Duke of Buccleuch has one, as does another, unknown collector who bought theirs through Wildensteins, the art dealers, in 1999.
Though the Salvator was guaranteed at the Christie’s sale for $100m, Rybolovlev expected it to reach $200m. Instead, $260m was reached within two minutes. After this there were only two bidders, and the tussle finished with a last, startling and knock-out leap of $30m. Christie’s took a buyer’s premium of $50.3m, putting the price up to $450.3m. It was, said, Rybolovlev, “the right price”, and Robert Simon agrees, though most were flabbergasted. Thomas Campbell, former director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, summed up the art world’s view: “It should come as no surprise in a market where speculation, marketing and branding have displaced connoisseurship as the metrics of value.”
The buyer turned out to be Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan, a relative of Mohammed bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, for whom he was said to be acting. Just as the Badr news was being checked by The New York Times, the Louvre Abu Dhabi tweeted that the painting “is coming to Abu Dhabi”. Later, Reuters reported being shown documents commissioning Prince Badr to buy the painting for Abu Dhabi, with a ceiling of $500m. Quite why a hitherto unknown Saudi should act for Abu Dhabi has inclined many, including US intelligence sources, to believe that the Crown Prince – MBS – was indeed the buyer. However, it was impolitic for such a colossal purchase to be boasted about at a time when MBS had just immured many of the kingdom’s leading figures in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton as part of an anti-corruption drive.
Now, in answer to questions about the painting, the Louvre Abu Dhabi simply says that “The Salvator Mundi is [sic] acquired by the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi”. Any further questions are directed to the DCT, which only reiterates its statement of September 2018, saying that the promised September 18 “unveiling” of the Salvator had been delayed, and promising further details. None has been forthcoming. And the picture remains unseen, despite growing speculation about its fate.
The Leonardo question
Perhaps the DCT has listened to Campbell, who drew attention to a startling photograph of the Salvator, its face streaked, paint missing, in the throes of restoration: “450m dollars?!” he wrote. “Hope the buyer understands conservation issues.” Martin Kemp has an answer to that: “It’s damaged, but if we saw lots of great paintings with the inpainting [restoration] removed, we’d be shocked.” He wouldn’t rule out that “some of the repeat patterns in the drapery weren’t by one of the boys [studio helpers]”, but to him it is “uniquely Leonardo in conceptual terms, in the way it looks at the sheer complexity of seeing”.
To Modestini, “if it’s not by Leonardo, who is it by? Certainly not by Luini, certainly not by Boltraffio.” Modestini spoke gently; there was no hint of aggression in her defence of the painting. For her, “no one else has painted that way, with such sophisticated transitions of various tones. If you look at the detail of the upper lip of the Mona Lisa, you can see clearly it is absolutely by the same hand.” She sighed. “It needs to be on public view; it’s very easy to question something, especially when you can’t see it.” She had, she added, worked on Titians and Raphaels, but the Salvator is “something completely out of the ordinary. There’s no question in my mind. But I’m not an art historian.”
Robert Simon took a broader view: “I’ve come to realise that great things and great stories are always the target of nay-sayers. And Leonardo especially brings this out. Added to that is the desire of many to prove that experts are wrong and to show that fools and their money are soon parted.” Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?
Several major scholars have expressed doubts, including Charles Hope, a former director of the Warburg Institute, Carmen Bambach, an Italian Renaissance art specialist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Frank Zollner, the author of the Leonardo catalogue raisonné. Martin Landrus, of Wolfson College, Oxford, argues that Luini is primarily responsible for the Abu Dhabi Salvator; Bambach opts for Boltraffio. Alessandro Vezzosi, an Italian Leonardo scholar, thinks it too heavily restored and repainted to be attributed to Da Vinci. Another, scornful art historian said mockingly that he saw something of Leonardo “in the wrist”, but did not wish to give his name.
Jason Farago, art critic of The New York Times, jeered that: “This Jesus, far from saving the world, might struggle to save himself a seat on a crosstown bus.” (Bouvier advised Rybolovlev against buying it, so disturbing was its condition. But as Rybolovlev told me: “With art, you should never buy what you don’t like. But above a certain rather low amount, everything you buy becomes an investment. So you actually need both to like it and for the price to be right. When you make a good deal, you like the object even more.” He had the last laugh.)
Problems have also surfaced with the provenance. Ben Lewis, a visiting fellow of the Warburg whose book, The Last Leonardo, is published in late April, has discovered a CR – the royal stamp of Charles I – on the back of a version of a Salvator in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow, whereas there is no such brand on the Abu Dhabi Salvator. (There are 20 known variants of the Salvator in existence.) Modestini’s line is that “the panel had been planed, presumably in the 19th century, and that would have removed any collectors’ marks”. The ebullient Lewis nonetheless said: “This makes it difficult to know if the [Abu Dhabi] Salvator was ever in the collection of Charles I. It’s possible Charles I had two.” But it’s clear Lewis is doubtful. Indeed, he’s doubtful about the Abu Dhabi painting altogether. “Opinion’s coalescing around the view it’s a high-end studio/workshop production. It was never worth $80m in the first place.”
That’s his view. None of the painting’s supporters has budged their position. And Zollner has also voiced a wait-and-see attitude.
But for the moment no one can see. So where is the picture? Kemp is “as much in the dark as anyone else”. Though he’s had had dealings with Abu Dhabi, “the Arab hierarchy is impenetrable”. Robert Simon said: “Frankly, I don’t know. I suspect in some safe art storage facility. I have to think that someone who has paid $450 million for a painting will be taking very good care of it.” Modestini worries, nonetheless. She wrote to Abu Dhabi, pointing out that “the panel was very fragile. And though it was well-protected [by the museum-quality acrylic glazing fitted by her and her studio assistants], the custodians should be told it needed to be kept in proper conditions.” She got no reply.
In fact, Modestini doesn’t believe it ever reached Abu Dhabi. “If it went there, they’d have put it on exhibition,” she said. She has her reasons: she received an email in September last year from a well-regarded art conservator in private practice in Zurich. He told her he had been asked “by the insurance company and their re-insurers” to do a condition check on the painting and wanted information from her.
The Zurich conservator’s inspection was put off and put off and finally, last December, cancelled – though Modestini was assured that the painting was “safe”. (This is not a given: what is done with a work of art is, of course, entirely up to its owner. The Chapman Brothers defaced a mint set of Goya’s Disasters of War in the name of art; and Robert Rauschenberg erased a De Kooning drawing, with De Kooning’s permission. Lady Churchill destroyed Graham Sutherland’s portrait of her husband. A Japanese collector intended to be cremated with the hugely expensive Van Gogh he had bought to save his heirs death duties. More banally, it’s up to owners to decide whether or not to display it to anyone bar themselves.)
Georgina Adam, of The Art Newspaper, has said it’s in Geneva, presumably at the freeport. Which would be amusing, because Bouvier was a substantial shareholder of the facility. As for Ben Lewis, he’s sure: “It’s in Switzerland, in a lock-up. Never went to Abu Dhabi. The Saudis bought it but never handed it over to Abu Dhabi.” Why would they do that? “Art is one of the decks of policy in the Middle East.”
The Saudis’ power play
Why Abu Dhabi would welcome the painting for themselves is obvious. Its version of the Louvre had just opened when the Christie’s auction took place and “the last Leonardo” would be a marquee attraction – one that would rival Cézanne’s The Card Players, reportedly bought by the Qatari royal family for $250m and likely to be displayed in the Qatar National Museum, which is due belatedly to open next month.
This rivalry is the basis of a Daily Mail story in which the Saudis and the Emiratis bid against each other for the Salvator, neither knowing that the other was doing so, and each believing they were in competition with the Qataris. When the mistake was realised, the Saudi Crown Prince – MBS – gave the painting to his counterpart, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan (MBZ), in return for a yacht. This story also claimed the Qataris had a year earlier been offered the Salvator for $80m and had turned it down; the story has never been confirmed nor has the source been identified, though Tortoise has been told that it came from a lawyer involved in negotiations with a nobleman held in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton.
More lurid stories abound on the internet, tying MBS, MBZ, Donald Trump, Robert Mueller and a now disbanded Israeli misinformation outfit called Psy-Group to the Salvator. They make for entertaining reading, but what none of them does is reveal what’s really happened to the painting.
The truth is that no one outside “the Arab hierarchy” really knows where the painting is, or who owns it. What is certain is that the Salvator, and Leonardo, will continue to be hotbeds of controversy. Did Modestini ever regret having got involved with the painting? “No,” she said, “I don’t. Though I’d really like to have my life back. But no regrets. It has a lot of power. And it has exerted a lot of power on me.”
One thing is certain: a showdown lies ahead. This October, the Louvre in Paris is putting on a blockbuster Leonardo show. Vincent Delieuvin, the Louvre’s conservateur-en-chef and expert on 16th-century Italian painting, had, Christie’s said, “confirmed the authenticity of the work”. But, Modestini, told me: “I think Vincent Delieuvin might have some doubts.” For Michael Daley, of ArtWatch, who has long contested the attribution, Paris would be “the acid test”. Jacques Franck, a one-time consultant to the Louvre on Leonardo, said it would be a “humiliation” for the Louvre in Paris to show what he and – he claimed – politicians and Louvre staff “knew” was not a Leonardo.
Asked directly by Tortoise if he stood by the Abu Dhabi Salvator as an autograph Leonardo, and if he intended to exhibit it in the autumn, Delieuvin simply referred all such questions to the Louvre’s press office. The press office initially stalled, refusing to comment on paintings not in their collection, and saying, po-faced, that it was too early to announce the loans for the Leonardo exhibition. On February 19, the Louvre confirmed to Tortoise that “the Musée du Louvre has asked for the loan of the Salvator Mundi for its October exhibition. We are waiting for the owner’s answer.”
One trusts he will be forthcoming. The Louvre Abu Dhabi paid the Musée du Louvre $525m to use the Louvre name – a graphic example of the financial clout of the Middle East and its museums. But the West is still wealthy in commercial nous: contemporary art has attracted the freest-spending private buyers, not to mention the dealers and auction houses – its advantage being that its practitioners are still alive and still productive. The old masters are dead and most of their work is already in the great galleries of the old world. (The Duke of Buccleuch’s Leonardo is on long-term loan to the National Gallery of Scotland, and there are no indications that he is inclined to sell.) Nor are the old masters sexy, until they fall into the hands of such spectacular marketeers as Loïc Gouzer, who masterminded the Salvator sale for Christie’s and called it a “painting of the most iconic figure in the world by the most important artist of all time”.
The gargantuan price achieved for a less than glittering Leonardo – if that is what it is – is, more than anything, a testament to Gouzer’s salesmanship. Now the painting’s owner needs to let it be seen by as many people as possible. Though quite how well it will look when it hangs beside the Mona Lisa will be very interesting indeed.
Living With Leonardo, by Martin Kemp, Thames & Hudson, £19.95
Dark Side of the Boom, by Georgina Adam, Lund Humphries, £19.99
The Da Vinci mystery: why is his $450m masterpiece really being kept under wraps? The Guardian, by Jonathan Jones
The fate of Leonardo’s ‘lost’ Salvator Mundi. The Times, by David Sanderson
Would the ‘royal’ Salvator Mundi please stand up? The Art Newspaper, by Martin Bailey