Leonardo da Vinci (attributed) - Salvator Mundi

by Frauke Maria Petry


For some years it has been discussed whether Jesus was a yogi and taught his disciples meditation according to the Indian model. From a purely external point of view, some yoga teachers today seem to align themselves with this theory. With long hair and well-groomed beards, their style is as hipster as their preoccupation with trendy sports. The Salvator Mundi, which made the rounds in the media as the most expensive work of art in the world (as of 2019) with a sales price of $450 million, seems to fit the cool look. Since 2017 at the latest, the oil painting has become an icon of today's art world, although its attribution to Leonardo da Vinci is disputed among experts.


Due to numerous restoration works, the Son of God looks more like an "androgynous stoner." With his sleepy silver gaze, the young man not only seems deeply relaxed, but he casually stretches his right middle and index finger in the air as if he were not preparing to bless, but longing for a cigarette. Does this really correspond to Leonardo da Vinci's interpretation of the Savior of the World? According to the mouth it could at least come from the masterly hand. As with the Mona Lisa, the corners of the mouth form a smile, yet remain expressionless. Only the glassy-looking globe resting in the right hand refers to the royal position and the judgment of the world. This very hand is supposed to verify the authenticity of the painting.

The restorer Dianne Modestini found discarded signatures of a second thumb in this place. Although the artwork is one of Leonardo da Vinci's most copied paintings, it is said that these so-called "pentimenti" can be used to prove that the execution is the original. This is because copies usually get by without variations and such preliminary drawings. Leonardo da Vinci is said to have made a Salvator Mundi in 1500, presumably by order of the French King Louis XII. From the 17th century onwards, records prove the whereabouts of a Salvator painting in the English royal family. However, from 1666 the work remains lost.


In 1900, the alleged original version surfaces and moves into the possession of the British merchant and collector Sir Francis Cook. It is sold at Sotheby's in London in 1958 for 45 pounds to an American furniture dealer. In 2005, the painting is bought at auction by art dealer Robert Simon and art hunter Alex Perish in New Orleans for $1175. Due to its desolate condition, it undergoes several restoration procedures. In the process, Modestini identifies the painting as an alleged "Sleeper" - a previously unknown work by Leonardo da Vinci. Two years after its acquisition, the painting is submitted to international Leonardo experts for evaluation. Not everyone agrees with the opinion of the American professor, especially since, according to some critics, she is said to have altered the work considerably. Most specialists agree only that the Italian Renaissance artist made a contribution to the most expensive painting in the world. It is probably a workshop work.


Nevertheless, in 2011 the opus was presented in one of the largest Leonardo exhibitions at the National Gallery in London as the undisputed creation of the maestro. Two years later, art market player Yves Bouvier acquired Salvator Mundi at Sotheby's for $80 million on behalf of Dmitri Rybolovlev. The Russian oligarch bought it the very next day for $127.5 million, which, given the high premium, resulted in numerous legal consequences for the dealer. The collector, in turn, had it auctioned at Christie's in NYC in 2017. There, the Swiss Loïc Gouzer placed the painting in the section of lucrative contemporary works, and organized a million-dollar PR campaign for the Savior of the World - with success!


Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman offered the final, historic record amount of $450.3 million. Thus, after a 19-minute contest on November 15, 2017, the Savior became the most expensive work of art of all time. However, as the painting of a Christ met resistance in strict Islamic Saudi Arabia, bin Salman reportedly traded the painting for a superyacht from the Abu Dhabi crown prince's luxury fleet. The oil painting was then expected to join the collection of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, but its opening was postponed in 2018. Since then, the most expensive work of art in the world has not been seen.


The Salvator Mundi is the superstar on the art market. It is special not only because of its dubious attribution, sketchy provenance, and soaring record prices. The story of his sales also reveals the machinations of the art business. The exhibition houses, auction houses, and experts involved overrode any doubts about authenticity and secured the value of the work through various mechanisms. Wealthy people jumped on the playing field and presented their financial power by means of the painting. After all, art objects above eight-figure sums serve primarily as a display of financial possibilities, with the improbability of resale at the same price reinforcing the symbolic value. The World Savior also seemed to be instrumentalized for this purpose, with the increase in value guaranteed by numerous well-known art actors. Almost everyone wanted a piece of the Jesus Christ Superstar phenomenon.

The longer the work remained missing, the bigger its story became. The monetary value and the sales history of the painting seem to overshadow the art historical content of the Savior of the World. Yet the contrast between the message of Christian modesty and the power play of the art market could not be starker. In view of climate change, will it be long before the Last Judgment? In any case, the superyacht is of little help. It's a good thing that the Salvator Mundi has been rather "chilled out" about what's happening so far.


Leonardo da Vinci (attributed) - Salvator Mundi

Oil on wood, c. 1500, 65.6 x 45.4 cm