K.V. Turley writes from London.
You may remember the badly-written fact-free potboiler The Da Vinci Code. (If not, I’m told there are many copies available in used bookstores.) Well, when the novel was published it sold millions. Recently, a painting, believed to be by Leonardo Da Vinci, sold for millions; in fact, it went for a record price at auction.
It was not so much a case of The Da Vinci Code as the Da Vinci Barcode.
The painting in question is Salvator Mundi. It is fitting that this painting, which has sold for the highest price ever recorded on the open market, should be a depiction of Our Savior. That said, what the transaction says of a society that is prepared to pay $450m for a work of art is a different matter.
The mysterious purchaser was later revealed to be Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Remarkably, he could have had the same painting 60 years ago for only £45. Adjusted for inflation, that sum today would be around $1,300, meaning the 2017 price tag equates to an appreciation in the artwork’s value by 35,000 percent.
Unsurprisingly, the sale attracted a lot of media attention, not least because some have doubted that the painting is indeed, as has been claimed, a later work of Leonardo. Nevertheless, what is recorded of the history of the ownership and provenance of the painting could form the basis of a novel such are the twists and turns over the intervening centuries.
Critics reckon Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) to have been one of the greatest painters that have ever lived. They agree his works are the peak of the Italian Renaissance. What art historians cannot agree upon, however, is how many of his works survive. The disputed figure ranges from 15 to 20. It is believed that Salvator Mundi was painted between 1506 and 1513; around the time the painter produced the Mona Lisa.
The history of Salvator Mundi is hard to ascertain prior to its appearance at auction in 1900. Before that, for the previous 500 years, it seems to have found its way into various British Royal collections passing from monarchs to mistresses, and then through aristocratic lines until it surfaces at the beginning of the 20th century when it was acquired by the English merchant, Sir Francis Cook. At the time it was noted that the work was badly damaged. It was also not thought to be the work of Leonardo. Fifty-eight years later, it was Cook’s great-grandson who sold the painting for £45. Interestingly, when it was up for auction then it was identified as being by one of Leonardo’s pupils, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio.
Boltraffio’s authorship remained unchallenged until 2011. Then, having been bought for $10,000 by a New York art dealer, the Salvator Mundi was declared ‘a lost masterpiece by Leonardo.’ As a consequence, its value rose considerably. Still in a damaged state, the painting was gradually restored. Subsequently, a number of experts authenticated it as a work by Leonardo. Two years later, in 2013, the painting was bought by a Swiss collector for $75 million. Just a few months after that, it was sold again, this time to a Russian billionaire for $127 million. Now, four years on, it has been purchased anonymously for a record breaking $450 million.
There are various ways in which this curious history could be interpreted. It tells us that a brand name is everything, even when it comes to the works of an Old Master. Dan Brown reminded everyone on the planet, not just art connoisseurs, of Leonardo. The general public, as well as art collectors the world over, will have heard the name and also heard how valuable his work is. The recent sales also reveal how the super rich invest their money. Works of art, such as Salvator Mundi, are commodities to trade. In this case, in the space of just a few brief years, the painting has passed through auction rooms at an ever-increasing frequency and at an ever-increasing monetary value. The idea of the painting simply as an artwork to be contemplated has been obscured, even forgotten.
In 1958, an uncleaned, worm-ridden and damaged painting of Christ was sold for a paltry sum. Almost 60 years later, a cleaned-up and much-valued painting of Christ was sold for a fabulous sum. The title under which Christ is represented here is as the Savior of the World. Today, more than ever, the world is in need of a savior. From many quarters the call comes for something, or someone, to save the planet, and all those who live on it, not least from the many self-inflicted ecological wounds. People look to this person or that movement, to this ideology or that technology, in the hope that a savior can be found there. Of course, they are looking in the wrong direction. By only one Name shall we be saved.
The publicity surrounding the painting and its sale came just prior to the feast of Christ the King. It is a feast that reminds us of the Sovereign Reign of Our Lord: the Lord of Lords, King of Kings. For some there still remains a mystery surrounding the authorship of Salvator Mundi and its subsequent history. That subject is best left to art historians and billionaire investors to argue over. There is something else, though, perhaps something more mysterious, present here in all this.
When the sale was made in New York City last month, one image alone flashed through news wires and around the globe. Regardless of the financial worth attached to the painting or any disputes over authorship the image presented to the world was that of the Savior of the World. It reminded all who saw it of who really is King of Kings and Lord of all. And for anyone able to glimpse this, that is sufficient. Even more, it is something altogether priceless.
That which was from the beginning…we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon…the word of life.