Why are critics calling the $450 million (R6.2 billion) Leonardo painting fake? The art world and chattering classes are casting doubt on a recently-sold Leonardo da Vinci.
Even before Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi went to auction last night at Christie’s in New York, art world naysayers were savaging its authenticity. A day before the sale, New York Magazine’s Jerry Saltz wrote that he’s “no art historian or expert in old masters”, but “one look at this painting tells me it’s no Leonardo”.
And that was before the painting obliterated every previous auction record, selling, with premium, for $450 million.
Soon after the gavel came down, the New York Times published a piece by critic Jason Farago wherein — after also noting he’s “not the man to affirm or reject its attribution” — he said the painting is “a proficient but not especially distinguished religious picture from turn-ofthe-16th-century Lombardy, put through a wringer of restorations”.
Had the buyer of the most expensive painting in the world just purchased a piece of junk? “All of the most relevant people believe it’s by Leonardo, so the rather extensive criticism that goes ‘I don’t know anything about old masters, but I don’t think it’s by Leonardo’ shouldn’t have gone to print,” says British old masters dealer Charles Beddington.
“It’s a picture that needed to be extensively restored. But the fact that it’s unanimously accepted as a Leonardo shows it’s in good enough condition that there weren’t questions of authenticity.”
After speaking to multiple prominent old masters dealers, the real issue regarding the Leonardo’s validity seems to be a question of education: “All old masters have had work done to them,” says dealer Rafael Valls. “They’ve all been scrubbed and cleaned, but when you think about a particular painting and say, ‘Oh, it’s by Titian, but a quarter of it was recreated by other restorers,’ it still is what it is”.
Those in the art world who dismiss its authenticity, dealers say, are transferring criteria used to judge contemporary art onto old masters. “To a certain extent, you have to put condition aside,” says dealer Johnny van Haeften. “Of course it’s not perfect, and of course it’s not mint. But can you get another one?”
The painting was probably created in 1500. By the 1600s, it was in the court of Charles I, after which it popped up intermittently in inventory records, disappearing in the 1700s and reappearing in 1900 in the inventory of a manor house in Richmond.
It was sold in 1958 and disappeared again, resurfacing at auction in 2005, when three old masters dealers picked it up for $10 000.
They hired noted restorer Dianne Dwyer Modestini to remove the filth and varnish, at which point the painting was a shell of its former self. Significant portions of the composition were missing altogether.
The Leonardo could have been damaged in any number of ways. First, it came from Leonardo’s studio to England on horseback or in a cart and then by boat. For the next several centuries it could have hung in a moldy room with a leaky roof, or a smoky candelabra.
Even in the 18th century, people were aware paintings got filthy, so “every time paintings changed hands”, dealer Beddington says, “they got cleaned quite harshly”. This Leonardo, he says, “obviously changed hands quite a bit”.
When Modestini restored the painting, therefore, it was expected she would paint in what had been lost — both through her cleaning and those of previous owners — “keeping in character with what is left”, Beddington says.
The question for most old masters buyers, then, is not whether a painting is “authentic”, but to what degree it’s original. When it comes to infinitely rarer artworks “you have to compromise on the condition”, Van Haeften says.
“Because there’s no other possibility of acquiring one.” Dickinson adds: “You’re buying much more than the painting, you’re buying its history. Who’s looked at it, who’s touched it: You’re selling a dream: that what you’re in front of, Leonardo was once in front of.”