Is the paint still wet on the Leonardo da Vinci Salvator Mundi that recently sold for an eye-watering £340million?
That is the question raised by art experts yesterday following the discovery of photographic evidence suggesting that someone carried on painting it between its unveiling at the National Gallery in London in 2011 and its auction at Christie’s New York last month.
Dr Martin Pracher, a German lecturer in technical art history, was taken aback to find that the painting had changed, according to photographs taken then and now.
He alerted Michael Daley, director of ArtWatch UK, who was astonished by the differences – most notably, that folds on Christ’s left shoulder, as seen when the painting was exhibited in the National Gallery’s 2011-2012 Leonardo exhibition as a major discovery, had disappeared from the picture sold by Christie’s.
Photographic evidence suggests that someone carried on painting the Leonardo da Vinci Salvator Mundi that recently sold for an eye-watering £340m ($450m) between its unveiling at the National Gallery in London in 2011 (above) and its auction at Christie’s New York last month
The blue mantle on Christ’s left shoulder is shown (left) after it was restored between 2007 and 2011 and as it was exhibited in the National Gallery’s major 2011-2012 Leonardo exhibition. The photo on the right shows the changes that were made between 2012 and November 2017 when it was sold at Christie’s in New York
The painting as sold in November 2017. Dr Martin Pracher, a German lecturer in technical art history, was taken aback to find that the painting had changed, according to the photographs taken then and now. He alerted Michael Daley, director of ArtWatch UK, who was astonished by the differences
Mr Daley said: ‘The $450m Leonardo Salvator Mundi was not so much a discovery as a work-in-progress.’
Describing the photographic evidence as ‘sensational’, he added: ‘It had never occurred to me that they’d go on painting after it had been officially sanctioned at a Leonardo exhibition and entered into the record and the history books as an image.
‘That is, the picture as sold this month is not the same as it was when exhibited as Leonardo autograph work at the National Gallery.’
Although no one disputes that the painting underwent extensive restoration before its unveiling at the National Gallery, the new evidence led one expert to say: ‘There must have been heavy cleaning or retouching… – not for the better – after authentication, which moves the work even a bit further from its original [attribution].’
Beaux Arts, the learned arts journal, has just published a feature in which Jacques Franck – an expert in Leonardo’s (above) painting techniques and a restoration adviser to the Louvre in Paris – says that he believes it is by Leonardo’s assistant, known as Salai
A Christie’s spokeswoman confirmed that Dianne Modestini, the painting’s original restorer, had worked on the painting again before its sale.
Salvator Mundi (Saviour of the World) portrays Jesus gesturing in blessing with his right hand while holding a crystal orb in his left hand.
Some of the world’s foremost scholars confirmed its attribution to Leonardo in 2011, when Luke Syson, the then National Gallery curator, included the painting in his blockbuster Leonardo exhibition.
It was sold on November 15 by Christie’s New York, which had described it as the artistic rediscovery of the 21st century, ‘one of fewer than 20 known paintings by Leonardo’.
But some leading scholars doubt the attribution. Frank Zöllner, of the University of Leipzig, believes that it could be a ‘high-quality product of Leonardo’s workshop’ or even a later follower.
Beaux Arts, the learned arts journal, has just published a feature in which Jacques Franck – an expert in Leonardo’s painting techniques and a restoration adviser to the Louvre in Paris – says that he believes it is by Leonardo’s assistant, known as Salai.
Mr Daley said that Dr Pracher’s photographic evidence clearly shows the differences: ‘The blue drapery over Christ’s true left shoulder has been repainted.
‘Lots of folds that were there when it was exhibited as an autograph Leonardo, with the seal of approval by Luke Syson and others, have been changed or removed. The world is acting as if this is the same painting that was endorsed at the National Gallery, and it’s not.’
He added: ‘Someone has been working on it… Is it still a work in progress? Has it been sold when the paint’s still wet?’
Charles Hope, former director of the Warburg Institute and a leading specialist in the Italian Renaissance, also doubts the painting’s authorship, noting that accepted Leonardo paintings look ‘quite different’.
He said that Dr Pracher’s photographic evidence clearly shows that ‘there’s been a change’: ‘It is a bit odd.’
Whether it has any impact on its value remains to be seen. Hope said of the £340million sale: ‘The price is absurd. Crazy.’
After weeks of speculation about the buyer, with reports suggesting that it was Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Christie’s released a statement to ‘confirm’ that the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism ‘is acquiring’ the painting and that it ‘will be available for public view at the Louvre Abu Dhabi’.
A Christie’s spokeswoman said that the restorer told them that ‘the difference’ between the images is due to a ‘natural byproduct of the cleaning, conservation and drying process’.
In her 2014 published report, she had written of degradation in the drapery caused by ‘ultramarine sickness’ – ‘the commonly occurring alteration of this pigment in conjunction with oil paint’ – and noted that ‘the shadows of the folds over the proper left shoulder… became progressively stronger’.
The painting was sold on November 15 by Christie’s New York (above, as the bidding ended), which had described it as the artistic rediscovery of the 21st century, ‘one of fewer than 20 known paintings by Leonardo’
Modestini argued yesterday that ‘the black streaks in the left shoulder of the Salvator Mundi’s blue mantle are not pleats’: ‘They are marks caused by the deterioration of the blue pigment made from the semi-precious stone, lapis lazuli…
‘Solvents used for the cleaning and retouching for a brief period saturated the paint in the area of the left shoulder and made the streaks ‘disappear’ [the cleaned state image]…
‘Over time, as the solvents evaporated completely, the degradation reappeared in this isolated area [the 2011 after-treatment image].’
The Christie’s spokeswoman said: ‘Prior to its presentation for sale at Christie’s, Modestini partially cleaned the passage of paint in the shoulder and the dark streaks disappeared’.
She added: ‘To imply that something incorrect has taken place would itself be incorrect.’
But Mr Daley said: ‘The well-known phenomenon of “ultramarine sickness” is a red herring.
‘The folds were there in 1912, the oldest photograph of the painting, and in 2011, when it was exhibited at the National Gallery and in the restorer’s own report. No naturally-occurring phenomena could have altered an artist’s depicted folds in a painting.’