The Complete Story of How “Salvator Mundi” Became the Most Expensive Painting and an Original da Vinci?

In November 2017, a stranger paid $ 450 million for a painting nobody knew for a long time that Salvator Mundi still existed.

Complete Story of Salvator Mundi by da Vinci

It took six years to turn an anonymous painting into an original by Leonardo da Vinci. And just 19 minutes to turn it into the most expensive work of art of all time. Christie’s in New York is awesome at $ 400 million – including fees, the painting costs 450.3 million which put this piece of art on the top of the list of the most expensive paintings in the world. The next day the photo of “Salvator Mundi” is emblazoned on the front pages of the newspapers and the world is puzzled. Who was so crazy to flip this sum over for such a venture? Who was the opponent who had offered up to $ 370 million? And what is it about the painting that has the strength to make the already crazy art market hit such a caper?

Salvetor Mundi in The Hand of Old Master Dealer

The package that the UPS courier is delivering on the fourth floor of 22 East 80th Street on New York’s Upper East Side had not been handled with care. When Robert Simon unpacked it that day in spring 2005, the frame of the delivered painting was broken. But that doesn’t bother the art dealer for old masters. He is relieved to find that there is something like a painting in the box. 

Simon had discovered the blurred image of a portrait of Christ in the online catalog of a local auctioneer in Louisiana. A Christian motif that was in great demand around 1500 north and south of the Alps, Salvator Mundi, the savior of the world. Simon is an art historian, restorer, and president of the “Private Art Dealers Association”. And off-side auctions are his hunting ground.

Together with his art dealer colleague Alexander Parish, he decides to give the painting a chance. They agree on a limit, and Parish wins it over the phone. None of them went to the auction. They were lucky enough to buy it. And the cost was supposedly $ 10,000.

Simon is an elegant and extremely friendly gentleman. There is a hint of melancholy in his mischievous smile. According to him, the purchase was a gamble. And he also considered that he must not speak about the actual price and the exact origin of the Painting. The Sotheby’s auction house banned him. It comes from the estate of a deceased person who had no contact with the art scene. 

 So it’s a painting. 65 x 45 centimeters in size, oil on walnut wood, heavily painted over, the panel uneven and with a clear crack. At the back, a scaffold holds the plate together. 

But there are places that make Simon’s heart beat faster. The hand was extraordinarily beautiful. And part of the hair. Despite the cloudy eyes and the almost grotesquely painted mouth, the slightly larger-than-life portrait has a charisma that Simon grabs. He puts the Christ in a black garbage bag, gets in a taxi, and drives a few blocks up Uptown on 96th Street to his former colleague and girlfriend Dianne Dwyer Modestini.

The Restoration of Salvator Mundi by a Great Restorer

Dianne Modestini got the painting that very evening in April 2005 when “Salvator Mundi”. Dianne’s husband Mario Modestini was an influencer who has been doing the restoration of Italian Renaissance painting. Dianne had worked for a long time in the Conservation Department of the Metropolitan Museum and is a professor at the New York Institute of Fine Arts. And her judgment and restoration was one of the most important things to make this happen.

After Simon left Dianne, Mario observed the painting taken in his hand and looked intensely at it for a moment. Then he said, it’s the work of a very great artist. And he also assured that it was from the Leonardo generation. Dianne Modestini describes how her husband, the Italian old master connoisseur, uttered the “L” word for the first time.

Salvator-Mundi-Restoration-by-Dianna-Modestini
Dianna Modestini during the restoration of Salvator Mundi

In June 2018, Dianne Modestini sits in her apartment in Florence at the foot of Giardino Bardini, poodle lady Cleo on her lap, and tells of the second great love of her life. As she said, she didn’t know anything about Leonardo’s late work, nor did she know that there was a ‘Salvator Mundi’ who was thought to be lost and of whom only copies were known. At first, she had no idea what they had in front of them.

In the beginning, the painting looked strange in which the face was painted in a very strange way. She fetches her laptop and clicks on the images that show different stages of the restoration. She also describes that it did not look good rather it looked ridiculous and seemed like it was wearing a clown mask. But the color of the painting was very fresh and it seemed between five and twenty years old. Maybe the last owner had worked on it himself. This what Modestini described to the media.

She also spoke about her grief after her husband’s death. While she was working on the Painting, she continued talking to Mario in her head. The “Salvator Mundi” becomes a silent companion, whose secrets she exposes layer by layer. She worked on the painting intermittently for six years.

The research That Trace Its Origin

Robert Simon often travels to England to research the origin of the Painting. Drawings from around 1500 in the Royal Library in Windsor, prove that Leonardo worked on the composition of a “Salvator Mundi”. King Louis XII, whose court painter and engineer Leonardo, worked in Milan between 1507 and 1512, is considered a possible client.

Leonardo da Vinci worked on behalf of changing princes and kings, maintained a large and productive workshop, and probably produced a maximum of 20 paintings by his own hand.

In the Book Library of the Courtauld Institute in London, Simon discovers the reproduction of a “Salvator Mundi”, which was made before 1912 and was once part of the collection of the English textile dealer Sir Frederick Cook. The painting was particularly included in the Cook collection catalogue.

The Double Thumb

Modestini removes particles by particles, which generations before her spatulated on the painting. In doing so, it gets to the bottom of the author.  Robert Simon had also noticed this shadow when he was looking at the painting with the night shot function of his digital camera – a trick to penetrate the top layer of color with the help of infrared waves. 

The shadow turns out to be a pentimento and overpainting. It is the trace of the artist who creates and corrects his painting on the canvas. On a note of this matter, Simon says that the only rational explanation is, it is Leonardo’s original composition. It was a scary moment! For all of them, it was like The Da Vinci code was unraveled.

Salvator Mundi before restoration
Salvator Mundi before restoration

Modestini has yet another Eureka experience. As she works on the upper lip, she looks at documents about the “Mona Lisa”. According to her observation, she found out that the artist who painted them had to be the same one who painted ‘Salvator Mundi. Later on, she said she felt shivering, and she covered the painting with a cloth and went home.

Simon and Modestini tried to stay calm. And they understood they need the support of relevant experts to prove that it’s an original. Otherwise, the painting wouldn’t stand a chance. Because art is like football, everyone with an eye in their head thinks they are experts.

The last trace of “Salvator Mundi”, which Simon found in the English archives, dates from 1958. Cook’s descendants auctioned off the art collection. The copy of Christ went to a person named Kunz for £ 45.

The Leonardo researcher Emeritus Oxford Professor’s Thumbs Up

“Maybe someone used this pseudonym as a kind of pun on the term of art,” speculates Martin Kemp, the “rainmaker” in this story. A yes from Kemp is worth millions. And Without the approval of the emeritus Oxford professor, there will be no new Leonardo anymore.

Kemp parks his slightly damaged Subaru in front of a stone house from the 17th century, close to the castle wall to the Blenheim Palace in the English town of Woodstock. Farmer roses and lupines bloom, a lemon tree bears lush fruits. And since he is not only a passionate gardener but also an ambitious cook of Italian delights, he is heading for a conflict of interest here.

In science, he avoids such calamities. He said that he doesn’t authenticate paintings, he researches them. He doesn’t care whether they hang in the Louvre or are privately owned, ownership is irrelevant. It is not the problem of the Painting who owns it.

When he met “Salvator Mundi” for the first time, he took the meeting personally – like everyone else who had more to do with the work. The invitation to view the site arrives by email on March 5, 2008, on his birthday.

The Secret Meeting of Experts

When Robert Simon is convinced that he has a lost masterpiece in his hands, he calls in experts whose discretion he trusts. The image is subjected to technical analysis in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Nicholas Penny, appointed new director of the London National Gallery in 2008, finally organizes a kind of secret tribunal in which the “Salvator” not only has to withstand the experts, but also the direct comparison with the London “Virgine of the Rocks “. It is considered a Leonardo original, but that too was not uncontested.

“In the 17th and 18th centuries, more Leonardos were listed in aristocratic collections and traded in auction halls than the artist could have ever painted,” writes Kemp in his 2004 book “Leonardo”. It was only in the 20th century that his work was limited to the core of what is clearly documentable.

Simon transports the Painting to London with a custom-made wooden case in hand luggage and brings it to the National Gallery on May 19, 2008. The painting is now insured for 25 million Euros. And no one except customs can find out what’s in the suitcase. 

When Martin Kemp faces the work, it is difficult not to break out in euphoria. He saw copies and variations. Yet the painting seemed very different to him and the crystal ball in the right-hand interests him more than anything else. He realizes that it has to be rock crystal. Christ does not hold a symbol of the world in his hand as in the conventional representations. According to the Greek astronomer Ptolemy, the cosmos consists of crystal balls lying one inside the other. Therefore this iconographic is standing for not only the Salvator Mundi rather Christ becomes Salvator Cosmi, the ruler of the cosmos. This is a typical Leonardo move!

A Real da Vinci – or Not?

The “Salvator Mundi” the term, “Saviour of the world” is taken from Latin, is an honorary title of Christ that stands in a tradition of Christian iconography, which originated in the late Middle Ages. Most of these representations show Jesus Christ with an orb or a sphere as an insignia of his world domination. The oil painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci is 65.6 x 45.4 cm in size and is dated to around 1500.

However, the exact time of its creation is as unknown as the client. The painting was still in extremely poor condition in 2005. It had previously been unprofessionally restored and overpainted. And it was only after an extensive restoration that it was presented to several experts in 2007, including well-known Leonardo specialists. Opinions differ and a majority consider the Salvator Mundi to be a real da Vinci, but others believe it is more the work of a student or assistant from da Vinci.

The experts, who see a real da Vinci in the painting, drawing on the results of the material-technical investigations, among other things, two robe studies of the master, which he made during the preparation of the work and for which Leonardo’s authorship is considered secured. The analysis of the changes that the artist made to the work also points to da Vinci.

Critics, on the other hand, complain, for example, that no contemporary has ever reported on this painting. Furthermore, the crystal ball on the painting looks like a glass panel and the folds visible behind it are not on the head due to the lens effect. Since Leonardo had dealt intensively with optics at the time, it could not be his work. And finally, the in-depth restoration hardly makes it possible to undertake serious expertise.

The Mona Lisa and Her Counterpart

When Kemp published his memoir “Living with Leonardo” in 2018, he was certain that “The ‘Salvator’ and the ‘Mona Lisa‘ are counterparts. One conjuring up the natural magic of human and earthly worlds, the other referring to spiritual realms beyond the worldly. He also puts them together in terms of time: “The longer I look at it, the more certain I am that it was created after 1500.”

The London expert conclave in the National Gallery changes everything. Nicholas Penny decides to show “Salvator Mundi” in his Leonardo exhibition planned for 2011. Robert Simon has reached the goal. The grotesquely painted Christ from the provincial auction is now a rediscovered work by Leonardo da Vinci.

There are still three more years until the debut in public, in which nothing is allowed to leak through the image. The controversy before the London exhibition could jeopardize his participation. 

The painting eats money: exploration, restoration, a new frame, air-conditioned and secured storage, insurance – and no cash in sight. The thing begins to grow over the two lucky guys Robert Simon and Alexander Parish. You sell a share to the American art dealer Warren Adelson. He should take care of the rental and sale of the Painting. It wasn’t until later that Simon and Parish learned that he was no match for the cunning dealers in the high-price segment.

The Public Reaction and Acceptance

On June 22, 2011, four months before the opening in London, the industry paper “Artnews” got wind from the rediscovered Leonardo and published a photo showing the crude, over the painted condition of the painting  – a stoned-looking young man, the “drug-crazed hippie” as Kemp once called him.

Simon tries to save the situation and publishes a photo of the cleaned state of the Painting. But the critics can no longer be caught. Frank Zöllner from Leipzig and Carlo Pedretti from Rome are also recognized Leonardo experts, who were not invited to the secret meeting, question the attribution, or reject it. And around the world, there are dealerships who sell the painting for $ 100 to $ 200 million. Then Mr. Lindemann meets the man, a renowned oriental carpets dealer, and is given access to two files, which are filled with documents about the “Salvator Mundi”.

Regarding the then restored painting; Lindemann declined the offer considering the intensive cementing and extremely restored painting. And he further told that it was in what I would call a ruin. Apart from the fact that the sum of 200 million Euros was astronomical, the outline of our collection did not need this image,” says Lindemann.

Even though Simon emphasizes in a press release in 2011 that the Painting is not on the market, its value is still being negotiated. The National Gallery is suspected of being involved in a commercial advertising campaign. The public doesn’t care. The pre-sale tickets for the exhibition are traded on the black market for £ 400. Visitors camp with sleeping bags in front of the National Gallery to get a day pass.

Leonardo da Vinci on offer

But the “Salvator Mundi” does not benefit from the Leonardo hype. Boston also refuses. Berlin is out anyway. And Nicholas Penny of the National Gallery in London has to raise $ 71.7 million to save Titian’s “Diana and Callisto” loan for the UK.

Maxwell Anderson alone is biting, the new director of the Dallas Museum of Art. He wants to put a spotlight on his tenure. For eight months, the painting is on an easel in a back room of the museum to win potential patrons for the required $ 150 million. With two of the three owners, he designed financing for 10 to 15 years. But the business bursts and the third one, art dealer Warren Adelson refused because he wanted the full amount at once.

At this point, the story of the clever truffle hunters who bravely discovered and established a treasure is over. And an art market thriller begins that the world has never seen before.

The Entrance of the Freeport King

As Deus ex Machina, the auction house Sotheby’s jumps out of the backdrop. Sotheby’s, the London auction house, came to us to tell that they have a private client who was interested in the painting which was later informed by Simon. 

Rybolowlew had signaled to buy interest. His fortune, estimated at $ 6.8 billion, also comes from the sale of his stake in the Russian fertilizer company Uralkali. He is the owner and president of the AS Monaco football club.

In mid-March 2013, the painting will be transported to a New York apartment for viewing, which Rybolowlew bought in 2011 for a record price of $ 88 million. But at this moment Yves Bouvier, known as the “Freeport King”, appears as a potential buyer.

The then owner of the Geneva transport and storage company “Natural Le Coultre” was the largest tenant in the Geneva “Freeport“, a duty-free warehouse where grain was initially stored in 1888, later gold, wine, cars and, most recently, works of art were stashed away. Estimates assume that around 120,000 works of art worth several billion Euros are stored in Geneva. It is the 3-D version of the Swiss numbered account where assets come and go absolutely discreetly.

Bouvier had used his insider knowledge to acquire works of art and to resell them at a surcharge of 50 percent. There is a winged word that says what keeps the art market moving: death, divorce, default – death, divorce, and bankruptcy. Bouvier knew what his clients kept in their air-conditioned high-security chambers. He also knew who urgently needed money or who had to rub it into art and hide it.

Rybolowlew became Bouvier’s customer around 2003. Around 2008, when Rybolowlew separated from his wife, Bouvier was to get him “mobile assets”. By 2013, he had created a total of 38 spectacular works of art, including works by Gauguin and Picasso.

Salvator Mundi in the Hand of the Russian Billionaire

When Rybolowlew, who donated a lot of money for the restoration of cathedrals and religious art in Russia, expressed interest in the “Salvator Mundi”, Bouvier slipped between the Russian billionaire and the painting. He signs a “private deal” with Sotheby’s. The “Salvator Mundi” now has a new price: $ 80 million goes to the dealer consortium Simon, Parish, and Adelson. Sotheby’s is said to have collected three million dollars in agency fees. 

Very quickly, possibly on the same day, Bouvier sells the “Salvator” to Rybolowlew – at a premium of $ 47.5 million. In an email to a Rybolowlew confidant, Bouvier writes: “Lowering the price was terribly difficult, but 127.5 million is a very good deal.” 

On December 30, 2014, Rybolowlew happened to find out the true purchase price of an Amedeo Modigliani painting that Bouvier had given him for $ 118 million. On the other hand, Bouvier paid Steven Cohen, New York hedge fund manager, for it. Since 2003 he had bought art through Bouvier for about two billion dollars. And as he now notices that he did not buy paintings with his help but from him. Not for an agency fee of usually three to five percent, but with a surcharge of up to 50 percent. In January 2015, he reported Bouvier to fraud and trapped him. When Bouvier enters the Belle Époque apartment building in Monaco on the morning of February 25, 2015, to meet Rybolowlew, the police await him. The Entire situation is now known by The Bouvier Affair.

In the course of the investigations, details about the “Salvator Mundi” deal also become known. Two years after the sale, Robert Simon found out from the newspaper who owned the painting. And he recognizes the huge difference to the price for which they sold the painting. 

In June 2018, Simon leans back in the armchair and shrugs his shoulders resignedly. Rybolowlew loses interest in art through the “Bouvier affair”.

The Auction

In July 2017, Dianne Modestini received a message that someone wanted to talk to her about Leonardo. On the evening of July 19, 2017, the “Salvator Mundi” will be brought to Modestini’s studio at the university with great security. She was happy because no one had seen the Painting since the end of the London exhibition in February 2012.

The next morning, Loic Gouzer and Alex Rotter, the two vice-heads of the post-war and contemporary art department at Christie’s auction house, examined the painting. They decided to send it on a promotional tour of the world and auction it off in the midst of contemporary art as the highlight of the autumn auctions.

27,000 people queued in Hong Kong, London, San Francisco, and New York to see the “Salvator Mundi”. Christie’s has a camera mounted under the Painting and publishes a video that shows deeply moving reactions of the viewer. The marketing professionals are not at a loss for gags. Even Leonardo DiCaprio mixes with the audience, what a coincidence.

Robert Simon also visits the “Salvator” in New York. He described that he couldn’t stop his tears when he saw the painting for the second time. It had to do with the quality that only Leonardo achieved. Christ, a man and a god at the same time, human and superhuman, also woman and man, very androgynous. It is disturbing and irresistible! Of course, my feelings came back. All the struggles and efforts over the years were suddenly present again.

In the weeks leading up to the auction, the dispute over the authenticity and condition of the Painting is picking up speed again. 

The New Sensation in the Art World

On the evening of November 15, 2017, Simon was sitting in Christie’s auction room at Rockefeller Center in New York. To date, the record for an old master painting is the equivalent of around $ 76.7 million. So far, only the works of classical modern and contemporary art, such as Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”, as well as works by Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, and Francis Bacon, broke the sound barrier of $ 100 million. This is exactly why Christie’s places the “Salvator Mundi”, a work from the early 16th century, in the evening auction for contemporary art.

The people in the audience were not the collectors or museum curators of old masters. Rather they were rich people. But they were also modern and contemporary art-loving people. And Simon said that he doesn’t understand this market for contemporary art.

Although they believe in the painting so much that they felt something inside. Initially, Dianne Modestini and Robert Simon feared that the $ 100 million mark will not be exceeded and Leonardo will disappear again in some Freeport. But 19 minutes after, Jussi Pylkkanen the boss of Christie’s called “Lot 9 B”, and the auction ends at $ 400 million. This selling price is a complete sensation and the painting became the most expensive painting in the world ever auctioned.

The Trail Of Money

There are several winners this evening. Simon, Kemp, and Modestini see themselves as moral winners. For them, success is an afterthought. But they don’t earn a cent at the art market bonanza.

Rybolowlew goes home with around $ 270 million in profit. Shortly afterward, the US prosecutor’s office terminated the investigation against Bouvier, because this result could no longer speak of fraud and overreaching.

Christie’s charges a good $ 50 million in additional fees, which the buyer has to pay in addition to the price.

The cash register also rings for an unknown risk investor: the guaranteed sum of 100 million has been exceeded by 300 million. It is customary to pay guarantors around 20 percent of what goes beyond their guarantee. In this case, that would be $ 90 million.

Because the Painting disappears without a trace after the auction and nothing is known about the new owner, the rumors rollover. The question of who offered up to $ 370 million also gives rise to speculation. 

Finally, on December 8, 2017, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which opened four days before the auction, put an end to speculation via Twitter: “Louvre Abu Dhabi is looking forward to showing Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi’. The work was acquired for the museum by the Abu Dhabi Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Later it is disclosed that the Saudi prince Badr Bin Abdullah Bin Muhammad Bin Farhan Al Saud bought the painting as a representative of Culture and Tourism ministry- with a license to spend up to $ 500 million. This is actually explains everything, why the bidder had increased by a whopping 30 million in the last step. And because everything seemed so obscure, the gossip also shimmered more and more colorfully. The Saudi princes would have exchanged with the Emirates rulers what they give among friends, painting for yachts.

The resurrection

On September 18, the portrait of the world savior is now to be presented on the Arabian Gulf – and thus strengthens the Louvre offshoot as an outpost of European cultural heritage.

The search for the reasons for the disappearance, emergence, and highly speculative sale of the image exposes the mechanisms of the art business. And it leads to people whose lives enrich art and to people who enrich them with art. Rarely have roles been so clearly divided, was the profit as one-sided as exorbitant, were the contrasts between connoisseurs and purchasing power so striking.

According to Simon, it was the most exciting experience of his life and he expressed that it looks as if he has made peace with history. Dianne Modestini said goodbye to “Salvator Mundi” as if it were about the end of a relationship: “It felt like breaking up,” she says, adding that Abu Dhabi is a good place for the Painting.

Martin Kemp, always looking for new interpretations of Leonardo, is working on reformatting “Salvator Mundi” into a stage event: next year, on the 500th anniversary of the death of the Renaissance genius, a choir concert with image projections is to go on tour. After all, Leonardo was much more than just a painter.

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