You can’t put a price on beauty; you can put a price on a name. When the National Gallery in London exhibited a painting of Christ in 2011 as a heretofore lost work by Leonardo da Vinci, the surprise in art historical circles was exceeded only by the salivating of dealers and auctioneers.
The painting, “Salvator Mundi,” is the only Leonardo in private hands, and was brought to market by the family trust of Dmitry E. Rybolovlev, the Russian billionaire entangled in an epic multinational lawsuit with his former dealer, Yves Bouvier. On Wednesday night, at Christie’s postwar and contemporary sale (in which it was incongruously included to reach bidders beyond Renaissance connoisseurs), the Leonardo sold for a shocking $450.3 million, the highest price ever paid for a work of art at auction. Worth it? Well, what are you buying: the painting or the brand?
The painting, when purchased at an estate sale in 2005 for less than $10,000, was initially considered a copy of a lost Leonardo, completed around 1500 and once in the collection of Charles I of England. Over time, its wood surface became cracked and chafed, and it had been crudely overpainted, as an image in the sale catalog shows. Cleaned by the conservator Dianne Dwyer Modestini, the painting now appears in some limbo state between its original form and an exacting, though partially imagined, rehabilitation.
Authentication is a serious but subjective business. I’m not the man to affirm or reject its attribution; it is accepted as a Leonardo by many serious scholars, though not all. I can say, however, what I felt I was looking at when I took my place among the crowds who’d queued an hour or more to behold and endlessly photograph “Salvator Mundi”: a proficient but not especially distinguished religious picture from turn-of-the-16th-century Lombardy, put through a wringer of restorations.
Its most engaging passages are in the embroidered blue gown that Christ wears. The robe’s folds are supple and sinuous, and the trim, zigzagged with an elaborate and unbroken knotting pattern, has a mathematical intricacy that gives this Christian painting a surprising Islamic touch. (Technical analysis confirms that Leonardo used pure lapis lazuli for the robe, rather than cheaper azurite.)
The orb that Christ holds in his left hand, symbolizing his dominion over all creation, is not as showy as Dan Brown devotees might like, but its watery coloring, glossy edges and dimpled bottom do the trick well enough. His curly hair, especially the lower tresses framing Christ’s neckline, has a certain corkscrew adeptness, though it’s not as proficient as the similarly kinky locks of Leonardo’s recently restored “St. John the Baptist,” at the Louvre in Paris, or Botticelli’s slightly earlier “Portrait of a Lady,” at the Städel in Frankfurt.