Da Vinci Painting Demolishes Auction Records; Scholars Still Dubious 

An oil on canvas composition, Salvator Mundi, sold on Wednesday, 15 November 2017, for a whopping $450.3 million at a Christie’s postwar and contemporary art auction in New York. The painting, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, has now achieved the rarified status of the most expensive work of all time, totaling $150 million more than the last record-setting sale of Willem de Kooning’s Interchange (1955) in 2015. 

The rarity of Leonardo’s paintings added to the momentum of Christie’s marketing for the sale, however many scholars harbor serious doubts as to the authenticity of the work. Documents suggest that da Vinci did indeed conjure a composition of the subject near the beginning of the sixteenth century that turned up in the collection of English King Charles I; since then, the work’s location became relatively untraceable. 

This particular painting of Salvator Mundi reappeared at a Sotheby’s auction in 1958 labeled as a work by Boltraffio, and sold for a meager $72 (£45). When it appeared once again at a 2005 estate sale, it was still considered a copy of this lost Leonardo work. From that point, however, that the narrative surrounding the work began to change. The damage accrued to the painting and its supporting panel encouraged substantial restoration and research, during which the case was built to connect this work to da Vinci’s hand. This reattribution to Leonardo was announced in 2011, and in 2013, it sold for roughly $80 million. Shortly thereafter the painting sold once again, this time for $127.5 million to a Russian billionaire, who instigated this most recent sale. 

The problem, however, is that the authenticity of this work is still debated. While market experts praise the sale as a new landmark, scholars note the problematic aspects of compositional distinctions and issues of conservation that potentially complicate a connection to da Vinci. As The New York Times quotes Leonardo specialist Jacques Franck: 

“The composition doesn’t come from Leonardo… .He preferred twisted movement. It’s a good studio work with a little Leonardo at best, and it’s very damaged.”

The purchaser of the work remained anonymous and has a five year warranty on this statement of authenticity as outlined in Christie’s standard terms of sale.

Further Reading: 

Sarah Cascade, “Recently Rediscovered Leonardo da Vinci Painting Fetches $75 Million in Private Sale.” Art net News, 4 March 2014.

Nate Freeman, “‘We Witnessed History’: Christie’s $450.3 M. Leonardo da Vinci Becomes Priciest Work of Art Ever Sold, at $788.9 M. Postwar Sale.” Artnews, 16 November 2017.  

Robin Pogrebin and Scott Rayburn, “Leonardo da Vinci Painting Sells for $450.3 Million, Shattering Auction Highs.” New York Times, 15 November 2017.


Salvator Mundi, c. 1515. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

Posted by Alexis Culotta 

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