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How the Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi became a Leonardo-from-nowhere

If it’s not over in opera until the fat lady sings, it’s not over in art attributions until the paint dries and the provenance settles. In art historical disputes over the origins (provenances) or conditions (restorations) of art, the weight of academic study and curatorial politics has assumed a greater importance than the dwindling creative/technical expertise of living artists. That this imbalanced dynamic is culturally destabilising, can perfectly be seen in the Leonardo Salvator Mundi Saga. Following a scholar’s recent re-attribution of the Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi to Leonardo’s follower, Bernardino Luini, dedicated supporters of the $450million painting are re-writing its provenance in the wake of a second scholar’s newly discovered documents. The painting itself has not been seen since it was sold at Christie’s, New York, on 15 November 2017 and it is not clear when it might be seen again – the Louvre Abu Dhabi indefinitely postponed its planned launch of the painting a day ahead of a visit by the French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, to mark the announcement of the museum’s programme of events for the next year.

The first question here is stark: Is the picture that was sold for nearly half a billion dollars an entirely autograph painting by Leonardo or a dressed-up school work? The second question is: Had a proper art historical case been made for this painting before it was exhibited in 2011 at the National Gallery as a Leonardo? In our view, the latter had not happened, partly because no attempt had been made, and partly because on a reading of the available historical evidence, the Leonardo case could not be made. On the former question, the Vienna Times reported scholarly concerns on 17 September 2018 (“What Happened With the 450 Million Dollars Painting”):

“Is there anything wrong with the painting that was auctioned at the Christie’s New York in November 2017 for the world record price of 450 million dollars? Experts suspect that the image of Christ had been doctored before sale. When it was exhibited at the National Gallery London in 2011, there were some doubts: the pedantic Leonardo would never have painted the folds of the robe behind the glass ball, ignoring the refraction of the light. At the 2017 auction, the wrinkles suddenly looked ‘right’. In the magazine ‘Art’ the German specialist Prof. Frank Zöllner (62) [The author of the catalogue raisonné Leonardo da Vinci – the Complete Paintings and Drawings] wrote about Leonardo: ‘The question arises whether the restorers responded with a modification of the folds to the objections of the critics.’ So, a manipulation to seduce connoisseurs and drive up the price? Zöllner: ‘An absurdity, if that happened.'”

On the pre-sale re-restoration, see Dalya Alberge – “Auctioneers Christie’s admit Leonardo Da Vinci painting which became world’s most expensive artwork when it sold for £340m has been retouched in last five years” – and our: “The $450m New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi Part II: It Restores, It Sells, therefore It Is.”

WHAT HAPPENED?

From the first this work has been soaked in mystery. Professor Martin Kemp discloses in his latest book Living with Leonardo: Fifty Years of Sanity and Insanity in the Art World and Beyond that it: “crossed Robert’s [Robert Simon] path in 2005 when it came up for sale at a regional auction house in Louisiana. Robert and his fellow New York art dealer Alexander Parrish, who had also noticed it, thought it might be a bit better than it superficially looked – without imagining that it might be the original. They decided to bid by proxy, and met with success, apparently acquiring it for less than $10,000, which at the time would have seemed like quite a high price.” “Apparently”? For how much? How had it been listed? Who sold it? When? Where? Many have searched and no one has found answers but this serially redone as-if-from-nowhere work has been sold twice already – with a different face of Christ each time – for a total of over half a billion dollars, first in a private sale by Sotheby’s in 2013, reportedly for $75-80 million to the owner of a string of free ports who immediately sold it on to a Russian oligarch for $127 million, and then, famously, by Christie’s, New York, for $450million in 2017. Did that initial opacity pass freely through the National Gallery and into the art market food chain? It might seem so: when the painting was taken to the National Gallery for a private viewing by a select group of experts, “All of the witnesses were sworn to confidentiality”, Kemp has disclosed, “and the painting travelled back to New York with Robert. It was becoming a Leonardo.” The invitation to view, appraise and perhaps authenticate flattered: “We are only inviting two or three scholars.”

Kemp believes that the National Gallery had not included another Leonardo attributed work he supports (the so-called “La Bella Principessa” drawing) in the 2011 Leonardo show because the curators did not accept its attribution and he now feels that that rejection had highlighted: “the rationale for the inclusion of the Salvator Mundi. Was it on the market? Would exhibiting it mean that the National Gallery was tacitly involved in a huge act of commercial promotion? It seemed highly likely that it was also ‘in the trade’. All I knew at this stage was that it was being represented by Robert Simon. He told me that it was in the hands of a ‘good owner’ who intended to do the right thing by it, and I did not inquire further. I was keen to consider the painting in its own right, not in relation to its ownership. I speculated, of course, that Robert might have a financial interest, perhaps a share in its ownership; and I assumed he was gaining some kind of legitimate income from his work on the picture’s behalf. But the gallery was assured that the painting was not actively on the market. Understandably keen to exhibit, they were happy to accept this assurance.”

Above, Fig. 1: Part of the Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi painting (as shown on television) when it arrived in 2005 (still sticky from a previous restoration) at the New York studio of the restorer Dianne Dwyer Modestini.

Above, Fig. 2: Left, the screen grab of the 2005 state; centre, the picture as exhibited as an autograph Leonardo painting in 2011-12 at the National Gallery ; right, the picture as sold at Christie’s, New York, in November 2017 after further and recent restoration repainting.

Above, Fig. 3: Left, the head as in 2011-12 when at the National Gallery; right, the head in 2017 when sold at Christie’s, New York.

Above, Fig. 4: Left, the face as in 2011-12 at the National Gallery; right, the face as sold st Christie’s, New York, in 2017.

Above, Fig. 5: Top, the eyes after cleaning but before any repainting; left, the face, as in 2011-12; right, the face, as in 2017.

Above, Fig. 6: Far left, the face, as in 2005; left, the face as 2007 after the panel had been repaired and cleaned; centre, the painting in 2008 when taken to London for a private viewing at the National Gallery; right, the face as exhibited at the National Gallery in 2011-12; far right, the face as when sold at Christie’s, New York, in 2017.

GROWING THE PROVENANCE

We had warned ahead of the picture’s 15 November 2017 sale that the provenances compiled by the National Gallery in 2011 and Christie’s, New York, in 2017, were inflated and overly-reliant on the unpublished researches of one of the first consortium of owners (see “Problems with the New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi Part I: Provenance and Presentation”):

“…this work, now unequivocally described as a fully autograph Leonardo painting that is the artistic equal of the Mona Lisa, first materialised in 1900 when bought as by Leonardo’s follower, Bernardino Luini (- it was later taken to be a copy after Boltraffio). That purchase, and what followed immediately afterwards remained in the realm of verifiable facts until the painting went missing [after 1958] before reappearing in 2005. What was suggested to have happened before 1900 is speculation and/or contention. The first reference to such a Leonardo subject is in 1651. Christie’s provides the following provenance:

“(Possibly) Commissioned after 1500 by King Louis XII of France (1462-1515) and his wife, Anne of Brittany (1477-1514), following the conquest of Milan and Genoa, and possibly by descent to
Henrietta Maria of France (1609-1669), by whom possibly brought to England in 1625 upon her marriage to King Charles I of England (1600-1649), Greenwich;
Commonwealth Sale, as ‘A peece of Christ done by Leonardo at 30- 00- 00’, presented, 23 October 1651, as part of the Sixth Dividend to
Captain John Stone (1620-1667), leader of the Sixth Dividend of creditors, until 1660, when it was returned with other works upon the Restoration to
King Charles II of England (1630-1685), Whitehall, and probably by inheritance to his brother King James II of England (1633-1701), Whitehall, from which probably removed by
Catherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester (1657-1717), or her future son-in-law, John Sheffield, 1st Duke of Buckingham and Normanby (1648-1721), and probably by descent to his illegitimate son
Sir Charles Herbert Sheffield, 1st Bt. (c. 1706-1774); John Prestage, London, 24 February 1763, lot 53, as ‘L. Da. Vinci A head of our Saviour’ (£2.10).
Sir [John] Charles Robinson (1824-1913), as Bernardino Luini