The story of the re­cov­ery of Da Vinci’s Sal­va­tor Mundi gives an in-depth look at the murky and ad­ven­tur­ous world of Old Masters

The Peak (Hong Kong) - - Contents - STORY SO­PHIE KALKREUTH

The story of the re­cov­ery of Da Vinci's Salvatormundi, which set a world record at auc­tion, gives an in-depth look at the murky and some­times ad­ven­tur­ous world of Old Masters paint­ings, where the slight­est, ob­scure de­tail marks the dif­fer­ence be­tween worth­less copy and price­less orig­i­nal. Robert Si­mon de­scribes how he found Sal­va­tor Mundi at a small auc­tion in Louisiana and brought the Saviour back to life.

How does a paint­ing once priced at US$60 ul­ti­mately sell for US$450 mil­lion? This ques­tion comes to mind as I climb the stairs of a pre­war town­house near Cen­tral Park, New York, to speak to the man who un­earthed Leonardo da Vinci’s last paint­ing, Sal­va­tor Mundi.

Last fall, the 26-inch high paint­ing shat­tered auc­tion records when it sold for US$450,312,500, far sur­pass­ing the pre­vi­ous record held by Pi­casso’s Women of Al­giers, which fetched US$179.4 mil­lion at Christie’s in 2015.

With fewer than 20 works in ex­is­tence ac­knowl­edged to be Leonardo’s, and the rest hang­ing in mu­se­ums, the paint­ing was ex­pected to fetch a sub­stan­tial sum in 2017 – though few an­tic­i­pated just how much. The last paint­ing by Leonardo to be dis­cov­ered was the Benois Madonna, which reemerged at the Her­mitage Mu­seum in St Pe­ters­burg in 1909.

The con­test for Sal­va­tor Mundi came down to two bid­ders, with the in­cre­ments jump­ing at one point from US$332 mil­lion to US$350 mil­lion in one bid, and then, at just short of 18 min­utes, from US$370 mil­lion to US$400 mil­lion. Gasps were heard in the sale­room, which gave way to ap­plause when Christie’s co-chair­man Alex Rot­ter made the win­ning bid for a client on the phone.

In the crowd that No­vem­ber evening was Robert Si­mon, the New York art dealer who picked up the Sal­va­tor Mundi, widely thought to be a badly dam­aged copy, for un­der US$10,000 at an es­tate auc­tion in 2005. Around 20 other copies of the work, by stu­dents and fol­low­ers of Leonardo, are known to ex­ist.

In hind­sight, Si­mon’s dis­cov­ery sounds like some­thing out of a Hol­ly­wood movie. In re­al­ity, the process in­volved painstak­ing re­search and restora­tion over a pe­riod of six years, all of it kept se­cret un­til 2011 when the Sal­va­tor Mundi was un­veiled to the pub­lic as part of a spe­cial Leonardo ex­hibit at the Na­tional Gallery in Lon­don.

The newly au­then­ti­cated work – and the only Leonardo paint­ing in pri­vate hands – was later sold for US$80 mil­lion to Swiss bil­lion­aire Yves Bou­vier in 2013. Bou­vier then im­me­di­ately sold the paint­ing for US$127.5 mil­lion to Rus­sian bil­lion­aire Dmitry Ry­bolovlev, for whom he was act­ing as an art ad­viser. (That deal and other spec­tac­u­lar markups charged by Bou­vier have re­sulted in a pro­tracted and as-yet-un­re­solved law­suit be­tween the two men.)

At the No­vem­ber 2017 auc­tion, Si­mon thought the paint­ing could fetch as much as US$280 mil­lion, but the bid­ding “just kept go­ing.” When I ask what he thought of the fi­nal sales price, he laughs. “I thought it was cheap.” Then he pauses and leans back in his of­fice chair, and con­tin­ues more soberly. “I’m jok­ing, of course. But also I’m not. Ob­vi­ously, it’s a huge amount of money, but it’s a Leonardo.”

For art his­to­ri­ans and par­tic­u­larly Leonardo da Vinci schol­ars, the un­earthing of a lon­glost paint­ing by the Re­nais­sance mas­ter is the dis­cov­ery of a life­time. “More re­mark­able than dis­cov­er­ing a new planet”, ac­cord­ing to Luke Syson, who cu­rated the Leonardo show at the Na­tional Gallery in Lon­don.

Leonardo da Vinci’s ge­nius was far-reach­ing, and his place in the his­tory of West­ern art and science is enor­mous. But Sal­va­tor Mundi’s enor­mous price nev­er­the­less in­cited con­tro­versy. Crit­ics called the sale “ob­scene”. Me­dia head­lines ranged from “Has the Art World Gone Mad?” to “450 mil­lion rea­sons why Leonardo da Vinci’s Sal­va­tor Mundi isn’t a mas­ter­piece”. De­bates about money and art en­sued.

Ac­cord­ing to Si­mon, the out­cry was mis­di­rected. “No one says any­thing when some­one buys an apart­ment at 432 Park Av­enue or a yacht for US$500 mil­lion – that sort of goes un­der the radar. But for some rea­son, af­ter the sale, this paint­ing be­came the poster child for in­come in­equal­ity.”

Adding to the irony, Si­mon says, is that the Sal­va­tor Mundi will be ex­hib­ited in a pub­lic mu­seum. The anony­mous buyer was later con­firmed to be Saudi Prince Bader bin Ab­dul­lah bin Farhan al-saud, an as­so­ciate of Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man, who pur­chased the paint­ing on be­half of Abu Dhabi’s Depart­ment of Cul­ture and Tourism. The work is slated to hang in­side the new Abu Dhabi Lou­vre.

But the up­roar was par­tic­u­larly con­found­ing to Si­mon given the re­cent ex­plo­sion of the con­tem­po­rary art mar­ket, where works with ar­guably less his­tor­i­cal or cul­tural value, by un­proven artists, fetch ex­or­bi­tant sums. Si­mon rhetor­i­cally asks about the lat­est prices for Jean-michel Basquiat – a 1982 paint­ing of a skull had sold for US$110.5 mil­lion in May 2017. “How many Basquiats are there? Hun­dreds. Leonardo has just 15 paint­ings.”

Nonethe­less, it is un­usual for an old mas­ter paint­ing to break price records.

Euro­pean old masters gen­er­ated just six per cent of to­tal global auc­tion sales last year (US$594 mil­lion), ac­cord­ing to a re­port pub­lished by Art Basel and UBS. The mod­est per­cent­age will no doubt rise af­ter the Leonardo sale, but the whims of wealthy col­lec­tors skew to­ward im­pres­sion­ist and con­tem­po­rary artists such as Andy Warhol, Damian Hirst and Jeff Koons whose works col­lapse the dis­tinc­tion be­tween high and low art – and tra­di­tions of con­nois­seur­ship in which art deal­ers like Robert Si­mon are schooled.

Si­mon, who re­ceived his doc­tor­ate in art his­tory from Columbia Univer­sity, has built a ca­reer see­ing dis­tinc­tions that oth­ers can’t: dif­fer­ences in brush stroke, qual­i­ties of light and shadow, opac­ity and tex­ture of the paint. At his gallery, he dis­plays a se­lec­tion of paint­ings from his cur­rent in­ven­tory, pri­mar­ily Ital­ian and Span­ish paint­ings from 1300 to 1800, which he ac­quires and sells to mu­se­ums and col­lec­tors.

In many cases, Si­mon can spot rare gems at auc­tion that are mis­at­tributed, mis­un­der­stood or even mis­treated, cap­i­tal­is­ing on them later. And this, in sum, is what Si­mon did in 2005 when he came across a small paint­ing, thought to be a copy of a long-lost Leonard da Vinci, at an es­tate auc­tion in Louisiana. He recog­nised some­thing in the paint­ing and bought it along with an­other gal­lerist, Alexan­der Par­rish.

Since the turn of the last cen­tury, the paint­ing had been cat­a­logued as a copy by Giovanni An­to­nio Boltraf­fio, a con­tem­po­rary of Leonardo who worked in the mas­ter’s stu­dio. It had also been dam­aged and badly over­painted. Si­mon shows me a black and white photo of the paint­ing taken around 1900. Christ looks ghoul­ish – al­most car­toon­ish – with eyes


still wasn’t sure the paint­ing was the orig­i­nal Leonardo, but he knew it re­lated to a lost paint­ing by Leonardo, and so he pro­ceeded with a restora­tion. The wood panel had to be re­struc­tured, a process that took sev­eral months. And Modes­tini be­gan fill­ing in the miss­ing por­tions so that the art could “live” again. “Where there were losses, she didn’t try to re­con­struct it,” Si­mon ex­plains. “Our feel­ing was, it was bet­ter to leave it so you could see, close up, where the paint was miss­ing.”

At around this time, two and half years into his re­search, Si­mon came across the first ma­jor clue that this paint­ing was an orig­i­nal. Through the use of in­frared and X-ray imag­ing, which pen­e­trates through the top lay­ers of paint, he dis­cov­ered that Christ had two thumbs on his right hand: one in a po­si­tion con­sis­tent with the other Sal­va­tor Mundi copies and


an­other ear­lier thumb that the artist had painted over.

“In all of the other [ Sal­va­tor Mundi paint­ings] there is just one thumb,” Si­mon says. “This one is an early idea by the artist. So once we re­ally un­der­stood that it was painted over by the artist, it be­came clear that this must be the first ver­sion.”

Other clues in the fin­gers were re­vealed. When Si­mon and Modes­tini be­gan com­par­ing the qual­ity of the paint­ing to the copies, look­ing closely at the way the cu­ti­cles and nails had been ren­dered. The sfu­mato ef­fect of the face – the soft blurred ef­fect achieved in part by ma­nip­u­lat­ing the paint us­ing the heel of the hand – is also typ­i­cal of many Leonardo works.

Si­mon sent the paint­ing to a spe­cial lab in Mas­sachusetts for pig­ment anal­y­sis, as Leonardo men­tioned in his writ­ings that he pre­ferred us­ing wal­nut oil to lin­seed oil (the most com­mon base for mix­ing pig­ment). It’s a rather ob­scure ref­er­ence, Si­mon says, but by us­ing a tiny sam­ple of pig­ment, the lab was able to con­firm the paint­ing was, in fact, made us­ing wal­nut oil.

The dis­cov­ery was thrilling. But Si­mon now needed to sub­stan­ti­ate his find­ings. A pri­vate view­ing was ar­ranged at Lon­don’s Na­tional Gallery, where schol­ars and art his­to­ri­ans con­vened from Ox­ford, Mi­lan, the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum in New York and the Na­tional Gallery in Washington.

It was a rather “sur­real” evening, Si­mon re­calls, as he watched from the side­lines as the world’s lead­ing Leonardo da Vinci ex­perts viewed the paint­ing. Their re­sponse was unan­i­mous: this was an orig­i­nal Leonardo da Vinci, likely com­mis­sioned around the year 1500. Martin Kemp, one of the world’s lead­ing Leonardo ex­perts, said that he knew im­me­di­ately upon first view­ing the re­stored paint­ing that it was the work of Leonardo. “It had that kind of pres­ence that Leonar­dos have… that un­canny strange­ness that the later Leonardo paint­ings man­i­fest.”

But though the schol­ars Si­mon con­sulted agreed on the paint­ing’s au­then­tic­ity, oth­ers in the art world ex­pressed scep­ti­cism.

In a colour­ful es­say for Vul­ture. com in 2017, for ex­am­ple, New York Mag­a­zine art critic Jerry Saltz called the Sal­va­tor Mundi “a two-di­men­sional er­satz dash­board Je­sus” and voiced “big doubts” about its au­then­tic­ity. He called the paint­ing “in­ert”, “Byzan­tine” and too un­like other Da Vinci paint­ings. Saltz also of­fered a telling dis­claimer: “I’m not an art his­to­rian or any kind of ex­pert in old masters,” he wrote, “but I’ve looked at art for more than 50 years...”

Si­mon hadn’t read the piece but laughs upon hear­ing Saltz’s ver­dict. “That’s what the In­ter­net does,” he says. “Ev­ery­one’s opin­ion is equal.”

Crit­ics have fo­cused on the con­di­tion of the paint­ing, which ac­cord­ing to Si­mon sim­ply re­veals ig­no­rance about the gen­eral state of old mas­ter paint­ings. And some crit­ics, though ac­cept­ing the au­then­tic­ity of the work, sim­ply crit­i­cised the paint­ing it­self. New York Times writer and art critic Ja­son Farago dis­par­aged the paint­ing as be­ing bland – bor­ing even. “This Je­sus, far from sav­ing the world, might strug­gle to save him­self a seat on a crosstown bus.”

The crys­tal globe in Christ’s left hand has also been a point of con­tention. Some crit­ics have noted the re­flec­tions are those of a trans­par­ent bub­ble – not the re­fracted, in­verted ef­fects of light pass­ing through a crys­tal sphere. They ar­gue that Leonardo, who stud­ied such things, would have ren­dered it more pre­cisely.

In an es­say, Diane Modes­tini de­scribed see­ing the rock crys­tal orb through a mi­cro­scope and find­ing ev­i­dence of Leonardo’s hand.

“Originally the il­lu­sion must have been mag­i­cal,” she writes, par­tic­u­larly the lower right side of the orb, which con­tains care­fully ob­served in­clu­sions, char­ac­ter­is­tic of rock crys­tal, that are “as­ton­ish­ing” un­der a mi­cro­scope. “Each has been de­scribed by an un­der­painted mid­dle tone, brack­eted by a curlicue of white, and a dark shadow … only Leonardo, with his in­ter­est in the nat­u­ral sciences, would have gone to such ob­ses­sive lengths.”

De­spite the doubts, each bit of con­tro­versy has also brought re­newed at­ten­tion to the Sal­va­tor Mundi, and for this Si­mon is pleased. “It’s been a good talk­ing point for a lot of peo­ple,” he says, sug­gest­ing that it may also have gen­er­ated new in­ter­est in the old masters.

“Look at that pic­ture over there,” he ges­tures to a por­trait newly iden­ti­fied as the work of 17th­cen­tury Span­ish painter Jusepe de Rib­era. En­ti­tled A Des­per­ate Woman, the paint­ing de­picts a woman in a state of an­guish, clutch­ing her hair with tears streaked across her face. “I find that to be a pas­sion­ate, emo­tion­ally charged paint­ing. I look at all of this work in terms of what’s be­hind it. If it’s a Vir­gin mother and child, it’s about ten­der­ness, or fore­bod­ing or con­flict­ing set of emo­tions… these are com­pli­cated paint­ings.”

Con­tem­po­rary art’s fo­cus on in­tel­lec­tual or ab­stract con­cepts leaves many peo­ple con­fused, he reck­ons. The Sal­va­tor Mundi, on the other hand, has elicited a tremen­dous re­sponse from view­ers. “It’s a re­mark­able paint­ing. I’m not re­li­gious, but I find it very spir­i­tual, very mov­ing. And that’s the level that Leonardo works on. It’s more than just a ‘thing’.”

And yet, Sal­va­tor Mundi was in­cluded in Christie’s Post-war and Con­tem­po­rary Art sale, pre­sum­ably to reach more ag­gres­sive buy­ers, when it was sold in 2017.

RIGHT Leonardo da Vinci's last paint­ing, Salvatormundi.

ABOVE Robert Si­mon, the New York­based art dealer who dis­cov­ered Da Vinci's Salvatormundi.

ABOVE Christie's auc­tion of the Sal­va­tor Mundi in New York in 2017.

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