The rediscovery of Leonardo's Salvator Mundi
October 26, 2017 10:25 AM   Subscribe

Murky provenance, poor restorations, and sold for £45 at Sotheby’s in 1958 -- Leonardo's lost painting, Salvator Mundi, was rediscovered by Dianne Dwyer Modestini when she was trying to undo the damage of of the past and past restoration attempts in 2005. This was remarkable not only as a discovery of a lost work, but also because Leonardo da Vinci has such a small number of surviving paintings, and some are still disputed. Authenticated in 2011, it has made some rounds to international museums, and has again been traveling as an extended pre-sale exhibition by Christie's. Given what is expected to be a remarkably high final sales price, da Vinci's last privately owned painting will probably go back into private hands because no museum can afford the price.

As part of its current tour and attention, there has been interest around the crystal orb in Christ's hand, specifically that given Leonardo's scientific mind, the orb is inaccurately rendered, despite the inclusion of three bubbles that signify tiny gaps in crystal known as “inclusions.” You can see some of those details in the feature from Christie's, linked there and above the break, and those images have been copied in the Daily Art Daily article on the painting.

If you want to delve into the science of restoration, Dianne Dwyer Modestini wrote an article titled “Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi Rediscovered,” Leonardo da Vinci’s Technical Practice: Paintings, Drawings and Influence, Hermann Éditeurs, Paris, 2014, pp. 139-152. It's not online, so the article by Thomas J. Tague Jr, Ph.D., titled "Utilization of Infrared and Raman Micro-Spectroscopy for the Chemical Analysis of Art," will have to do for now.

But if you want to dig into weird theories, start with an appreciation of how the golden ratio plays out on Salvator Mundi, then continue on with Discovering da Vinci and a page with embedded videos comparing the face of Christ with that on the Shroud of Turin, which may lead you into conspiracy theories about Leonardo faking ancient relics.
posted by filthy light thief (26 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
I went and saw it displayed in San Francisco last week. There was not too long a line (probably shorter than the one at the Museum of Ice Cream, and since the Leonardo was displayed for free, it was about $38 less.)

The painting was displayed with a bright LED spotlight shining on it, making its pitch-black background occasionally sparkle, and the figure stand out on it almost like a hologram. The hands and embroidered garment are sharp, while the face is slightly hazy, reminiscent of the Shroud of Turin.

Also on display were 20th century works including a Warhol/Basquiat painting that it seems like Paramount might want to drop a million on to hang in their corporate office.

There was also a nice little painting of a globe by San Francisco artist Thiebaud which offered a nice echo to the orb in the da Vinci.
posted by larrybob at 10:35 AM on October 26, 2017 [2 favorites]


I think that this should be the link for the Salvator Mundi link above.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:36 AM on October 26, 2017


Empress, you are correct, thanks!
posted by filthy light thief at 11:05 AM on October 26, 2017


[Fixed! Mundis, am I right?]
posted by cortex (staff) at 11:07 AM on October 26, 2017 [1 favorite]


Sigh. In London the week before I go and then in New York the week I am in London! Wily, elusive Salvator Mundi!
posted by praemunire at 11:15 AM on October 26, 2017


We're all just chasin' Salvation.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:23 AM on October 26, 2017 [1 favorite]


I now feel guilty and a little sacrilegious about all the times I've willfully spurned the lithesome prestidigitations of contact jugglers in various city parks.
posted by Atom Eyes at 11:31 AM on October 26, 2017 [2 favorites]


I still hope we can find the parallel universe in which "it will probably end up in a museum because no private art collector can afford the price" makes sense, but the version above does not.
posted by Ashenmote at 11:41 AM on October 26, 2017 [5 favorites]


it has made some rounds to international museums, and has again been traveling as an extended pre-sale exhibition by Christie's.

Sic transit Salvator Mundi.
posted by one for the books at 11:49 AM on October 26, 2017 [11 favorites]


I am extremely unconvinced by the 'well, he just didn't want to distract from the painting' explanation for why a master of optics made a totally inaccurate crystal sphere. He could have gone for the frosted glass globe look if he wanted that. The switch from "well, he included those distracting occlusions because he was super accurate Leonardo" to that claim is especially... weak.

So I'm not actually finding it that tragic that it will go to some rich asshole, because I suspect it's another authentication scam.
posted by tavella at 12:03 PM on October 26, 2017 [5 favorites]


...no museum can afford the price.

I'll take this opportunity to link to the fully persuasive Museums Can Change—Will They?. It covers many issues, but one main point is "Big museums have long refused to recognize their unexhibited collections of duplicates and minor works as a financial resource. As a consequence, they are wasting value by keeping these works hidden. If they were redistributed to smaller institutions, and even to private collectors and businesses, they would fund an explosion of the value for which we have museums in the first place: people looking at art and getting more out of it when they do."

The article suggests using that money on eliminating admission fees and increasing education and related operating costs, but the cash realized from selling the stuff that's sitting in the basement could also be used to purchase masterpieces like Salvator Mundi.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 12:09 PM on October 26, 2017 [3 favorites]


I find it difficult to naively believe that a consortium of high-end art dealers got together to purchase the painting, had it authenticated and - quelle surprise - its the real thing!

The eyes in the painting aren't even level. This has, however, led to one interesting theory: that Leonardo painted half of it!

It's probably just another Luini.
posted by vacapinta at 12:52 PM on October 26, 2017 [8 favorites]


Leonardo does weird things with paintings, like the weird crooked horizon on the Mona Lisa. But still, the inaccuracy of the orb makes me think that his brush may have touched the painting but the bulk of the work was completed by apprentices/students.
posted by xyzzy at 12:54 PM on October 26, 2017


The entire annual operating budget for the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a little over $300 million. The original plan to build an entire new wing for modern art envisioned raising $600 million. So I'm not sure how clearing out the tchtochkes in the storage room would be able to come up with a sum of $100 million for one painting. Especially one for which there is any material doubt about authenticity.
posted by praemunire at 1:23 PM on October 26, 2017 [3 favorites]


I'll take this opportunity to link to the fully persuasive Museums Can Change—Will They?. It covers many issues, but one main point is "Big museums have long refused to recognize their unexhibited collections of duplicates and minor works as a financial resource. As a consequence, they are wasting value by keeping these works hidden. If they were redistributed to smaller institutions, and even to private collectors and businesses, they would fund an explosion of the value for which we have museums in the first place: people looking at art and getting more out of it when they do."

Setting aside the questions about its authenticity raised above, the idea that perhaps some museum could scrape together the funds to purchase Salvator Mundi if only they'd loosen up and sell part of their own collection - you know, just the unimportant stuff - doesn't really solve the problem. Who is going to buy the things that the first museum is selling? (That's not accounting for the cost of caring for them, or building new facilities to display them, either.) He's proposing a redistribution of art and funds at like, "assume a spherical art market" levels. Flooding the market with enormous portions of collections of art would presumably depress all of their prices, too, something that he never really reckons with. And why would it be more acceptable for countless other works that were once in museum collections to be taken out of circulation in order to fund this purchase?

I have heard Michael O'Hare speak a couple of times and his entire interest in this area seems to have been sparked by the realization that museums have storage facilities. Without demonstrating any understanding of why that might be the case,* he seems to have become totally fixated on the idea that art that is in storage is not being "used," and that it needs to be monetized. The rest spirals out from there. There are bodies of literature on the ways that works of art are or are not valued, and the historical and legal reasons for it, and he never seems to engage with them, or with museums themselves, beyond snarking about their websites/cafes/wall labels.

*For example, there are some kinds of art that simply cannot or should not be on view permanently because they are fragile, or prone to fading. Even things that can be on view safely for long periods of time are borrowed and lent and conserved, which would leave a lot of empty wall and gallery space to fill if museums did not have other things in reserve that could come out on those occasions.
posted by Anita Bath at 1:34 PM on October 26, 2017 [5 favorites]


I'm not sure how clearing out the tchtochkes in the storage room would be able to come up with a sum of $100 million for one painting.

I have no idea if a museum should buy this particular painting, but any major museum certainly could. O'Hare estimates the value of the Art Institute of Chicago collection at between $26 billion and $43 billion; the value of the Met's collection certainly is higher.

And to Anita Bath's comment: I think the article is very clear that the question is not whether there's a benefit to having art that's displayed rarely or not at all. It's whether keeping the current holdings is the optimal approach. Is the benefit of holding the least distinctive 1 or 2 or 3 percent of the collection worth forgoing the benefit of free admission, etc? Another perspective: If you didn't have that portion of the collection and a donor gave you X million in unrestricted funds, would you purchase those items?

why would it be more acceptable for countless other works that were once in museum collections to be taken out of circulation in order to fund this purchase?

Yes, even if they're sitting in storage, they are to some extent being "taken out of circulation" because they might be less accessible to scholars, but again it's a cost/benefit decision. The Met has more than 1.5 million items. Many of them are for practical purposes out of circulation already.

There might be a market issue, but given global annual art sales of over $60 billion, I wouldn't be too concerned if a few dozen museums started selling off $10 million a year.

There are bodies of literature on the ways that works of art are or are not valued, and the historical and legal reasons for it, and he never seems to engage with them...

The article seemed to engage with those issues, but I know almost nothing about the subject; citations would be very welcome.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:56 PM on October 26, 2017


I have no idea if a museum should buy this particular painting, but any major museum certainly could. O'Hare estimates the value of the Art Institute of Chicago collection at between $26 billion and $43 billion; the Met's collection certainly is higher.

You seem to be envisioning a world where you can just walk into a bank and cash a painting. Deaccessioning at museums is actually a slow, complex, and difficult process, not just because it requires long-term aesthetic and educational judgments (probably something you're not overly interested in) but because the market is limited and prices extremely difficult to establish. The main intermediaries are corrupt lampreys, too.

Whatever you're picturing in your mind as "$100 million worth of art" that a museum could actually sell in the market over, say, five to seven years without touching any core collection, you're not even close.

And, again, I hate to bum you out with references to non-spherical-cow markets, but selling that much art would certainly have scary implications for development going forward.
posted by praemunire at 2:06 PM on October 26, 2017 [2 favorites]


Is the benefit of holding the least distinctive 1 or 2 or 3 percent of the collection worth forgoing the benefit of free admission, etc?

I think that I understand what you're asking, but this phrasing really highlights one of the ways in which O'Hare's discussion is entirely divorced from reality: what do you (and he) mean by "1% (or 2%, or 10%) of the collection"?
1% of the objects in a collection - the actual prints, sculptures, paintings, etc. - and 1% of the collection by value (as a percentage of the billions mentioned above) are extremely different things, and he doesn't seem to understand that.

If you're describing value, "1% of the collection" could mean one painting or 1,000 (or 10,000) other objects. To reiterate what praemunire said above, identifying 1,000 (or 10,000) objects to sell is much more time-consuming (literally, by orders of magnitude) than selling one painting. And, even if you're able to decide which things to sell and find a venue for them, this assumes there are buyers for them, and that your estimates of what they'll be willing to pay are even remotely accurate, and that selling this volume of a certain kind of work won't drive all of the prices down as a result. Again, this indicates a real lack of understanding of how the art that is found in museum collections isactually bought and sold - or even how individual works are assigned values - which seems like it should be the first place to start if you are seriously proposing such a thing. And as praemunire said, this doesn't even begin to consider the implications of such a move for the future of fundraising and acquisitions at institutions that do this.

[...] even if they're sitting in storage, they are to some extent being "taken out of circulation" because they might be less accessible to scholars, but again it's a cost/benefit decision. The Met has more than 1.5 million items. Many of them are for practical purposes out of circulation already.

The way that you are assessing cost/benefit here is not one that I understand. It sounds like your metric for accessibility is "time spent on view where a casual visitor can access it." But in a museum, even if a work is not on view for one reason or another, there are ways for the public to access information about it (or even arrange to view it). That is the kind of accessibility I am talking about, and that is what goes away when a work leaves a museum and enters a private collection. Sure, there are museums that are worse and collectors who are better at accommodating people, but museums have obligations to the the objects in their care and to the communities they serve that a collector does not have at all.

A number of museums have deaccessioned works from their collections (or tried to do so) in recent years, so reading about one of those cases might make the problems with O'Hare's proposed solution a bit clearer. Just today, members of the Berkshire Museum filed suit against it to stop the proposed sale of a number of works in the collection, following another suit filed last week. (More here.)
posted by Anita Bath at 4:54 PM on October 26, 2017 [2 favorites]


Maybe the orb looks that way because it's not really an orb? The artist's depiction makes it look like a miniature model of a flat earth: the image of Jesus' palm makes the land, the robe is the sky, and the inclusions are the sun/moon/stars. The orb can be read as a crystal ball, but it must have a symbolic meaning as well, or why include it? I suggest that the physical inaccuracy is there because a realistic depiction of a crystal ball would have been meaningless, and an actual geographic globe would be too obvious. The impossible globe provides an allusion while concealing its meaning enough to remain as an artistic device.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:18 PM on October 26, 2017 [3 favorites]


The impossible globe provides an allusion while concealing its meaning enough to remain as an artistic device.

Why aren't you around when I suffer the speculation of inattentive and casual Lynch fans arguing about Diane's Blue Box and key in Mulholland Drive? Why!
posted by lazycomputerkids at 7:05 PM on October 26, 2017 [1 favorite]


Oh, I didn't get Mulholland Drive at all :-)
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:29 PM on October 26, 2017


vacapinta, I am entirely convinced by that link. It's so obvious, especially when you see the mirror-image composites.
posted by Go Banana at 10:00 PM on October 26, 2017 [1 favorite]


Jerry Saltz thinks it's a fake:

This kind of salesmanship is an old game: pure and simple greed, an irresponsible knowing flimflam that defrauds a mass audience into thinking it is “appreciating” an old master when it’s all smoky spectacle and mirrors. One of the first things you’ll hear from a Christie’s official is “the only way to know what this painting is worth is to bring it to auction”; this is patently untrue. Were this a real da Vinci, its worth would be something known in the collective culture. The idea that the best test of a painting is to place it under the hammer at auction simply tells you how out of touch Christie’s has become. But it’s also a sign of a new system of authority, a sad sign of how much power the auction houses have acquired that one of them is pushing a new work by an old master — a work that some experts accept, while many others are highly skeptical of, and yet no furor has been raised.
posted by Cash4Lead at 10:50 AM on November 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


I love reading Jerry, and think he had several good points, but he’s also a non-specialist who might be more interested in attacking the auction house (for decent reasons.) For what it’s worth, which is not a lot, my particular Italian Ren circle think that while it’s not anywhere close to a certainty, it’s not impossible that it’s (at least partially) by Leonardo’s hand. It’s just a delicious dive into matters of authenticity and his students and all that juicy stuff.

My friend in NYC who visited it on her birthday proposed a conclave of art historians to argue about it, with various Da Vinci’s brought in for comparison. If only, and if only I could be there.
posted by PussKillian at 12:00 PM on November 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


$450.3 Million.
posted by larrybob at 8:01 PM on November 15, 2017


I'm firmly with Jerry.

Too many people want to believe. Too many excuses why it's not like the others. Too much money in play.

It's hard to argue that something doesn't 'feel' right, but that's a good chunk of this business, isn't it? This simply doesn't say 'Leonardo' to me. The pose is too static, the expression lifeless, and the orb -- that orb. The man was a scientist and engineer. He explored science fastidiously. He would have made it a real point to show the orb's light refraction correctly, as a scientific observation, and to practice his mad skilz. And on an artistic level, showing the light refraction in the orb would be a much greater statement on God's Majesty and Mystery than showing this flat and incorrect bubble.

I'm just not seeing it. What I *am* seeing is a lot of salesmanship. A real Leonardo sells itself.
posted by Capt. Renault at 7:41 AM on November 16, 2017


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