Last November, a painting said to be a lost work of Leonardo da Vinci went on sale at Christie’s New York. The work, “Salvator Mundi,” depicts Christ holding a crystal sphere in his left hand and offering a benediction with his right. Bidding started with a guaranteed lowest bid of $100 million; 19 minutes later, it sold for $450,312,500 — becoming the most expensive painting ever sold.
"Salvator Mundi" literally means “Savior of the World,” and it’s believed to be one of fewer than 20 da Vinci paintings in existence. But while a chorus of scholars have attested to its genuineness, not everyone is convinced it's a Leonardo original.
Among the skeptics is New York Magazine and Vulture’s senior art critic Jerry Saltz. He claims that the style of the work doesn’t make sense, given the artistic historical context in which it was painted. With up-and-coming art stars like Michaelangelo and Bottacelli nipping at his heels, da Vinci would be embarrassed to revert to old-fashioned Byzantine portraiture at that point in his career, Saltz asserts. He says the style of the painting instead suggests it probably was made by a da Vinci pupil.
"The second I saw 'Salvator Mundi' in the flesh, I knew it was dead," Saltz told VICE News. "In his entire life, Leonardo never painted anybody dead-on with their chest directly on this way."
The painting also has a muddled background.
After going missing for 150 years, it suddenly appeared in 1958, when it was bought for $60 from Christie’s. At the time, it was believed to have been the work of Giovanni Boltraffio, a painter in Leonardo’s studio. New York art dealer Alexander Parish purchased it in 2005, and in 2008, it was authenticated as a real da Vinci by experts using a host of scientific methods.
In 2013, the painting was sold in Paris for somewhere between $75 and $80 million to Yves Bouvier, who sold it for $127.5 million to Russian billionaire Dimitry Rybololev. Rybololev flipped it in 2017 for $450 million, with Christie’s overseeing the sale to Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism.
But after several planned unveilings, the Louvre Abu Dhabi has so far declined to display "Salvator Mundi" — or even confirm its whereabouts.
Jerry Saltz explained to VICE News why he thinks the most expensive painting in the world has never been seen by the world.
This segment originally aired December 4, 2018 on VICE News Tonight on HBO.