Art Market Matters: The Last da Vinci Discovered

I love reading Kenny Schachter. He makes the acidity of the art world incredibly palatable. In recent news he’s posted an update on artnet about the location of the “Last da Vinci”. I couldn’t not read it. 

The History As We Know It

I used the previous article on da Vinci to talk more about the concept of Evening Sales and why a 500-year old painting was included in a Contemporary Art Evening Sale (CAES). Read it here, if you like. I didn’t mention the extensive restoration process the wooden boards underwent prior to going on the block, nor the provenance, nor the contested attribution to da Vinci himself, all of which you can read online and all of which, for convenience, I am about to enumerate below…

An excuse to break out the SurfacePro SuperPen

Where The Story Begins…

Salvator Mundi was discovered at a regional auction in 1958 where it sold for £45 to an American businessman, Warren Kuntz. The work was sold as part of the Cook Collection, created by Sir Francis Cook, a textile manufacturer. Kuntz and his wife, Minnie, took the painting back home to New Orleans. Somehow Robert Simon and Alex Parish, both New York-based art dealers, discovered the painting and bought it.

Restoration City

Then, in 2007, it was taken for extensive restoration to Dr Dianne Dwyer Modestini. The piece, which had been painted on wooden board, was damaged. The walnut wood had split into five pieces, was covered in surface dirt and had also been elaborately overpainted, meaning that the original work lay under the surface of another layer of paint, which had to be removed. The restoration took about six years before it resembled anything approaching a Leonardo.

Attribution Attrition

According to Christie’s, the painting was studied at The Met by a panel of experts and conservators, including Dr Carmen Bambach. Later that year, in 2008, tahe painting was taken to London’s National Gallery, where it was studied alongside a Leonardo dating from the same period, The Virgin of the Rocks. A Who’s Who of industry and Leonardo experts was then invited to study the two paintings together and “there was broad consensus that Salvator Mundi was painted by Leonardo da Vinci”. [1]

An American, A Swiss and A Russian…

In 2013, Parish and Simon sold it, together with Warren Adelson and other dealers, to a Swiss middleman, Yves Bouvier, for $80 million. In 2014, Bouvier promptly sold it on to Russian oligarch, Dmitry Rybolovlev, for $127.5 million.

It’s worth mentioning here that Bouvier has been the subject of various legal proceedings over the years. Bouvier was an art advisor, and had worked with Rybolovlev since 2002, helping the latter to build an art collection. But Rybolovlev discovered that Bouvier had been overcharging him considerably (in some cases applying a mark-up of more than 50% of the purchase price) and so started litigation proceedings against him. We can get more into that on another occasion.

The Sale of the Century

And then, in 2017, it was consigned to auction by Rybolovlev and sold for $450 million to Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud of Saudi Arabia, who gave it to Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi.

Which brings us more or less up to date.

What Happened Next?

The intention was for the Last Lost Leonardo to be displayed in the Louvre Abu Dhabi, then loaned to the Louvre Paris for an upcoming exhibit on The Master Himself. And then all of a sudden the work was pulled from both and hasn’t been seen since.

Recent Developments

According to Ben Lewis (who literally wrote the book on the Last Lost Leonardo da Vinci) and other sources, the Louvre Paris insisted on attributing the Salvator Mundi as from “the workshop of Leonardo da Vinci” [2] which may have explained MBS’s refusal to lend the work. After such a colossal downgrading (from “painted by Leonardo da Vinci” to “from the workshop of Leonardo da Vinci”) the work’s value would have dropped a lot. Apparently to about $1.2 million. Which is still quite a lot for someone who buys her clothes off ebay but in the grandest scheme of things it’s a ‘uuuuuuuge depreciation in value.

And in the past month a leading expert on The Master Himself has almost point blank refused to put her name to a list of scholars attributing the work to Leonardo. According to Dr Carmen Bambach of The Met, the Salvator Mundi was not painted by Leonardo but by his assistant, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, The Master Himself only adding small “retouchings”. [3] She also criticised Christie’s for inaccurately including her among the pool of scholars who had attributed the work to The Master Himself.

“If my name is added to that list, it will be a tacit statement that I agree with the attribution to Leonardo. I do not.”

Dr Carmen Bambach [4]

Dr Bambach told The Guardian that she received an email from London’s National Gallery earlier in May asking if she would acquiesce to having her name amongst those who had seen the Salvator Mundi in 2008, prior to the National Gallery’s blockbuster LDV exhibition in 2011. It’s a little suspect that the NG (keep up) was seeking approval for the attribution 7 years after the blockbuster exhibition took place. Schachter asks whether the NG might be trying to cover their tracks after installing the work in their mammoth exhibition but before acquiring definitive proof that the work was by LDV. [5]

Spokes

Of course, the spokespeople (look how PC I am) from the National Gallery and Christie’s provided variations on a them.

“[We make] careful consideration before including any loan in an exhibition … [We weigh] up the advantage in including it – the benefit to the public in seeing the work, the advantage to the argument and scholarship of the exhibition as a whole. 

On that occasion we felt that it would be of great interest to include Salvator Mundi in [the ehxibition] Leonardo da Vinci: Painter of the Court of Milan as a new discovery as it was an important opportunity to test a new attribution by direct comparison with works universally accepted as Leonardo’s.” 

National Gallery [6]

“The attribution to Leonardo was established almost 10 years prior to sale by a panel of half a dozen scholars and was reconfirmed at the time of sale in 2017. While we recognise that this painting is a subject of enormous public opinion, no new discussion or speculation since the 2017 sale at Christie’s has caused us to revisit its position.”

Christie’s [7]

What Does That Mean for the Louvre Paris?

So on the one hand you’ve got Leonardo expert and scholar, Carmen Bambach stating categorically that this work is not by Leonardo, but by his studio. And then on the other you’ve got Leonardo expert and scholar, Martin Kemp stating that he was immediately aware of the unique Leonardo-ness of this work. [8]

Kemp was interviewed by artnet about his new work on Leonardo and remarked specifically on the disappearance from public knowledge of the work. It’s unsurprising, he says, that for such an astronomically pricey artwork the owners will want to keep it in a rather secure place. But what does cause concern is the prospects for public access now that its location is unknown. 

In terms of the Leonardo not going to the Louvre for the 500th anniversary, Kemp is a little more commercially minded. He quite simply states that any speculation on the Louvre withdrawing their request for the Leonardo loan is untrue. Even if the Louvre had been “persuaded” that Leonardo’s studio worked on the painting, it wouldn’t prevent the museum from displaying the piece.

And if we understand that any museum in question (National G included) would likely include a new discovery, irrespective of an official or conclusive attribution, in any impending blockbuster show the disappearance of Leonardo’s Saviour from public view is all the more intriguing. The point of this is that it profits (financially) the museum staging the exhibition to host a work that has such a huge amount of public interest focussed on it. It’s like a magnet that will draw in the crowds. And then if it turns out that the work is by X then so much the better for the museum because its status will be augmented in the eyes of its board members and in the public gaze.

The da Vinci imagined by yours truly on board a superyacht called… The Da Vinci. Because overkill is underrated

Conclusions?

So, after all that, where is it? Kenny Schachter, The Intrepid Art Detective, thinks he’s found it. Apparently, Schachter says, the work was “whisked away in the middle of the night on MBS’s plan and relocated to his yacht, The Serene.” [9] Because the best place for a painting on wooden board that’s over 500 years old is to be surrounded by salt water.

So, if Schachter’s somewhat facetious contention is to be believed, the artwork with following unique attributes…

  • The Last Leonardo
  • The Lost Leonardo
  • The World’s Most Expensive Painting
  • The Highest Price Ever Paid for a Work of Art at Christie’s or Sotheby’s

… is sitting pretty on some superyacht in the Middle East. Although, according to Artlyst, the whole thing is fanciful speculation and Schachter has zero proof. [10] That said, it’s already been picked up by several major news outlets. But even with Schachter’s insider knowledge of the art world, no one’s any closer to discovering the location of this stupid Leonardo painting that wasn’t even painted by Leonardo. Is it me, or is the name Leonardo starting to sound strange? What a ridiculous waste of time this is…

I think we won’t know the final resting place of Salvator Mundi until it’s revealed (duh). In the meantime, why not splash a little colour on the matter by speculating as to its whereabouts? And Kenny Schachter has a knack for making things colourful.

Having some fun with editing and blowing out the proportions like an amateur

References