The Last Leonardo

Measuring a mere 15⅜- by 17½-inches, a slender panel of delicate paint by Leonardo da Vinci is taking the auction world by storm. Salvator Mundi, Savior of the World, which only came to light in the last decade as an authentic da Vinci, is a stunning find. It is thought that only twenty works were ever started by the master, of which fifteen survive. This is the last in private hands and it is up for auction by Christie's in New York on November 15, 2017.

"Salvator Mundi is the Holy Grail of Old Master paintings," says Alan Wintermute, Senior Specialist in Old Masters at Christie's. "To see a fully finished late masterpiece by Leonardo—made at the peak of his genius—appear for sale in 2017 is as close as I’ve ever come to an art-world miracle."

Discovering a new painting by Leonardo is a bit like finding a new planet.
— Alastair Sooke, Art Critic & Presenter

The painting was known to have been in the collection of Charles I when that unfortunate monarch's wordly goods were inventoried a year after his beheading. Those possessions were sold and the whereabouts of the painting unknown until it emerged in the United States in 1900 when it was purchased for the Cook Collection in Richmond. 

By now the canvas was covered with layers of overpainting. By whom? When? In Leonardo's day the original was known and copied many times by students, so this was assumed to be the work of a disciple-of-a-disciple of Leonardo, not the work of the master himself. When the Cook Collection was dispersed in 1958, the painting sold for $60. 

At next month's auction this now undisputedly authentic work is expected to fetch at least $100,000,000.

For almost fifty more years the painting's whereabouts were unknown until in 2005 it reappeared. In the process of having it cleaned and restored the current owners sought to have the layers removed and the dawning truth emerged. Salvator Mundi was first revealed to the public as an authenticated da Vinci in 2011 in London's National Gallery, at the largest exhibition of the artist's work ever put together.

But why are a bevy of historians and conservators so convinced of its authenticity?

First there is the style. This painting speaks the language of Leonardo. Delicate thin layers of paint build up to create indeterminate and hazy edges characteristic of the master.

The rock crystal orb in Christ's left hand, representing the world of the painting's title, glows with a heavenly light, yet is flecked with realistic imperfections which when viewed under a microscope show extraordinary precision. It is an effort to perfectly portray imperfection, while the figure is cloaked in a haunting sense of mystery, both characteristic of Leonardo.

"Every single [imperfection] is different. Every single one follows the shape of the orb. There's a mark for the inclusion. There's a shadow on one side of it. There is a highlight on the other," commented Alan Wintermute to National Public Radio this week. "No one but a sort of crazy, scientific perfectionist like Leonardo would ever dream of doing that."

This portrayal of Christ is old-fashioned by Leonardo's time in its full frontal gaze, reminiscent of a medieval icon. Yet a study of optics was Leonardo's obsession: not only the play of light through the rock crystal orb, but also the delicate highlights on each curl of hair.

And the clincher: the process of creative decision is evident beneath the surface, once examined forensically. The hand raised in blessing harbors a subtly different version, the changes highly unlikely for one merely copying. There are minute traces of the painting having been laid down with pinpricks of chalk through the original cartoon.

Extraordinary care went into the detailed examination of this painting by experts from around the world. And with so much riding on the accuracy of its authenticity, it is no wonder Salvator Mundi underwent such scrutiny.

The painting will be offered during the auction house's Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale.

"Salvator Mundi is a painting of the most iconic figure in the world by the most important artist of all time," says Loic Gouzer, Chairman, Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s, New York. "The opportunity to bring this masterpiece to the market is an honor that comes around once in a lifetime. Despite being created approximately 500 years ago, the work of Leonardo is just as influential to the art that is being created today as it was in the 15th and 16th centuries. We felt that offering this painting within the context of our Post-War and Contemporary Evening Sale is a testament to the enduring relevance of this picture."

Where will the painting end up? What will happen that evening? The sensational, the perfect, the imperfect? The last Leonardo will have the final word. 

I’m not remotely religious but I find looking at this painting genuinely moving because it is offering a vision of peace that is a complete antidote to day-to-day life.
— Alastair Sooke, Art Critic & Presenter