The art world loves a mystery and the story of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi is a good one. In 2017, the controversial painting became even more notorious when it became the most expensive painting ever sold. Famed auction house Christie’s offered the work, advertising it as “the last Leonardo” still available privately per The Art Newspaper, and estimated its value at $100 million. After a three-person bidding war that took place over the phone, it was eventually sold for a massive $450,312,500 with fees. It’s just one of 12 paintings to have sold for over $100 million at auction and the price buried the previous record of $179.3 million paid for Pablo Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger (Version “O”) in 2015, as reported by The Art Newspaper.
The anonymous buyer was soon revealed to be Saudi Arabian prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud, according to Fortune, who was not previously known to be an art collector. The Louvre Abu Dhabi, a satellite museum of the Louvre in Paris, tweeted that they would be displaying the painting, but it never happened. In 2019, writer Ben Lewis published his book “The Last Leonardo,” which details the journey of the painting from its beginnings to its rediscovery to its seeming disappearance. Lewis also created an NFT (non-fungible token) replica of the work showing Christ with his right hand raised in blessing — and his other hand holding money, per The Art Newspaper, which he sold on the OpenSea platform for the equivalent of $95,174.80.
“It is a problematic painting”
All of the modern drama surrounding the Salvator Mundi is pretty juicy, but drama is nothing new when it comes to the painting. Per The Guardian, its pre-1900 history is unknown. That year, it was sold as the work of Bernardino Luini, a student of Leonardo’s, for £120. As reported by art restorer Dianne Modestini’s website Salvator Mundi Revisited, in 2005, art dealer and historian Dr. Robert Simon and his associate Alexander Parish bought it at a New Orleans estate sale for just $1,175. It was later discovered that the owners had been New Orleans couple Warren and Minnie Kuntz. When Minnie Kuntz died, she bequeathed her estate to her nephew, Basil Clovis Hendry, including the painting. Hendry received $700 for the painting after fees; the Hendry family are splitting the profits of Ben Lewis’ NFT sale with Lewis, per The Art Newspaper.
The Guardian notes that The National Gallery of London, England displayed the painting in a 2011 Leonardo da Vinci exhibit and also quotes Dr. Bernd Lindemann, former director of Berlin, Germany’s Gemäldegalerie art museum, who states that the then-owners contacted him to gauge the museum’s interest in the Salvator Mundi, which he rejected: “I was surprised to see the painting in the exhibition at the National Gallery. It is a problematic painting, and I think it’s not the role of serious museums to present a painting which is so heavily discussed.” The controversy is the subject of the upcoming Netflix series “The Lost Leonardo,” based on Ben Lewis’ book.
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