History of the salvador mundi
Although a painting of Christ as the Salvator Mundi was not recorded during Leonardo’s lifetime, he made two drawings for the subject, there is an 1650 etching by Wenceslaus Hollar, and there are numerous copies and variants by students and followers. In 1964, Ludwig Heydenreich published an analysis of this existing material, concluding that there was a lost prototype.4 In 2005, Maria Teresa Fiorio suggested that the painting itself had never been executed by Leonardo and that the derivations came from drawings and cartoons.5
Cook Collection, 1913
2005 PurchaseThe Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci, long thought to have been lost, or perhaps never even actually executed by the artist, was offered at an estate sale in New Orleans in April 2005 where it was purchased by Dr. Robert Simon, a dealer and art historian of Italian Renaissance painting, and his associate, Alexander Parish. The composition was known from two drawings in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, numerous copies, and an etching made by Wenceslaus Hollar in 1650.
When it appeared in the small sale, it was in a 19th-century gilded frame, which carried an inventory number, 106, in the lower left corner. After its arrival in New York, the same number and the inscription, CC, were revealed, painted in white on the back of the early 19th century cradle.
Inscription on the cradle
Cook CollectionDr. Simon’s initial research confirmed that “CC” referred to the Cook Collection, since the inventory number corresponded to a painting of the Salvator Mundi, described as a “Free copy after Boltraffio” in the 1913 catalogue of the Italian Paintings in the Cook Collection by Tancred Borenius and Herbert Cook. The painting had been purchased from Sir Charles Robinson in 1900 for 120 pounds as a work by Luini. There was no earlier provenance. It is described as having suffered from both over-cleaning and repainting and “appears to be a free copy after the Salvator Mundi by Boltraffio in the collection of the late Signor G. B. Vittadini at Arcore, near Monza.” Herbert Cook commented that “I prefer to say a parallel work by some contemporary painter of Leonardo’s school.” 6
Despite its poor state, it was hung in the Long Gallery in Doughty House. Although the head and the curls on the proper right were grotesquely repainted, the blessing hand was perfectly preserved as were the curls on the left side of the head, which, on close examination, so closely resemble those of St. John the Baptist in the Louvre as to be practically a signature. However, the weird appearance of the repainted face, which Martin Kemp later described as resembling a “drug-crazed hippy,” 7 evidently prevented the many connoisseurs who saw the painting over the years from recognizing in it the hand of Leonardo. On June 25, 1958, 136 paintings from the Cook Collection were offered for sale at Sotheby’s; among them was the Salvator Mundi, which sold for 45 pounds.
The sale was attended by illustrious connoisseurs, including the art historians Kenneth Clark and Ellis Waterhouse and the Florentine dealer Gianni Salocchi. The post-sale list recorded that the buyer was “Kuntz,” but nothing more was known about the purchaser nor was there any particular interest in their identity until sixty years later.
New Orleans Private Collection
In September 2018, a team of investigative reporters from The Wall Street Journal discovered that the buyers were a couple from New Orleans, Warren and Minnie Kuntz. When Mrs. Kuntz died, she bequeathed her estate to her nephew, Basil Clovis Hendry, who hung it in the stairwell of his house in Baton Rouge.
Mr. Hendry died in 2004. A preliminary appraisal of his estate described the painting as “Continental School (19th century) Portrait of the Head of Christ. Oil on panel. Framed. Poor Condition.” It was assigned a value of $750. On this list, as illustrated in the WSJ article, there is a red check next to it and a penciled question mark. Other items on that page included: a Holy Family with a 1945 Christie’s label that catalogued it as “Marcello Venusti,” a small panel of Bowlers attributed to the School of Teniers, and an Antiphonal page, among others, attesting to the Kuntz’s regular purchases of antiques during their European summer holidays. A selection of Hendry’s effects was sold in New York in a Christie’s auction, while, ironically in the light of later events, the Salvator Mundi was consigned to the St. Charles Gallery, a small auction house in New Orleans. The sale took place in April 2005. By that time the painting had been more precisely identified as “Lot 664. After Leonardo da Vinci. (Italian, 1452-1519) ‘Christ Salvador [sic] Mundi’, oil on cradled panel, 26” x 18 ½”. Presented in a fine antique gilt and gesso exhibition frame. [1200-1800] Illustrated. Color Plate X.”
While in the possession of either the Kuntz’s or Mr. Hendry, the Cook restoration had been removed, the losses clumsily touched up, and a new varnish applied.
Basil Hendry’s house in Baton Rouge, courtesy of the Wall Sreet Journal
New York, 2005-2011
When the painting arrived in New York, Robert Simon brought it to my apartment. My husband was the great restorer and connoisseur of Italian paintings, Mario Modestini. He was ninety-eight years old, in failing health, and died the following January. I removed the recent varnish and repaints in a matter of hours while Robert Simon watched. Many areas, particularly the head, were damaged. After I had cleaned it, Mario rallied from his torpor when I showed him the painting. He studied it for some time and said that it was by a very great artist, a generation after Leonardo, and that it was slightly larger than life. I was struck by this because Mario had not responded to my many attempts to interest him in paintings for some time.
Cleaned state, Photgraph by Joshua Nefsky. copyright Salvator Mundi LLC
By December 2007, the restoration was at an advanced stage, and Robert and I had slowly reached the conclusion that it was the lost original by Leonardo and not a copy by one of his students. We invited Dr. Carmen Bambach, an expert on Leonardo’s drawings, to see it in my studio at the Conservation Center. When we told her that we thought it was by Leonardo, she said, “Well, it’s not by Boltraffio.” (Dr. Bambach has since attributed the painting to Boltraffio with “retouches” by Leonardo.) That is the only time Dr. Bambach saw the painting in the course of restoration. 8
Robert also showed the painting that December to Dr. Nicholas Penny, soon to become the director of the National Gallery in London, who agreed with the attribution, and told this to Dr. Bambach who alerted her colleagues in the European Paintings Department of the Metropolitan Museum. In January the painting went to the Paintings Conservation Department for study and technical examination. Three infrared images of the head, the blessing hand, and the mantle, stole and orb were made and a Photoshop file was created over the cleaned state image, which simulated the way the painting might look with the losses filled in with neutral tones. The curatorial and conservation staff largely agreed that it was by Leonardo, albeit severely damaged. The painting remained at the museum until May when, on Nicolas Penny’s suggestion, it was sent to the National Gallery in London. Five Leonardo scholars, Carmen Bambach (Curator, Department of Prints and Drawings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York); David Alan Brown (Curator of Italian Paintings, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.); Maria Teresa Fiorio (Professor, Università Statale, Milano); Martin Kemp (Emeritus Professor of the History of Art, Oxford University); and Pietro Marani (Professor of the History of Art, Politecnico, Milano) viewed the painting in the conservation studio at the National Gallery. All five experts agreed that it was Leonardo’s lost original. Robert brought the painting back to New York.
In 2010, the National Gallery was cleaning the Virgin of the Rocks. I wanted to look at it, primarily to study at close hand the passages painted in black. The background of the Salvator Mundi had been repainted a muddy brown color in the 19th century. Underneath this repaint, passages of rich deep black and some vestiges of a bright green color were visible. My visit confirmed for me that Leonardo’s black was very different from the brown repaint and Robert Simon gave me permission to remove it. It was clear that the original black background had been painted green at a later date, although this repaint had subsequently been removed. Unfortunately, very little of the original black background remained, having for the most part perished when the painting was brutally scraped down, probably in the early nineteenth century but perhaps earlier. The gouges had been covered with gesso fill and the entire area painted brown. I retouched the losses, matching the remains of the deep black original paint. I also suppressed a pentimento of the blessing thumb that had been exposed during the radical scraping of the background in consultation with Robert and the curator of the London exhibition, Luke Syson, did some further retouching of areas of loss in the embroidery of the stole, and added missing glazes to the abraded orb.
The National Gallery had decided to include the painting in their historic 2011 Leonardo exhibition, Leonardo at the Court of Milan. Although it is unusual for museums to exhibit paintings that belong to an art dealer, the importance of the discovery of a lost work by this rarest of painters was considered sufficiently important to make an exception to this rule. The painting was sent to London for the opening of the exhibition in November. Just before it closed, in January 2012, the National Gallery organized a technical symposium where I presented information about the technique and the restoration and showed the cleaned state image, which Robert Simon had always made available to scholars, to a wider public for the first time. The collected papers were published in 2014 and the cleaned state image has been available since then to anyone who cared to consult this volume. 9
During the exhibition Robert Simon and his partners, Alexander Parish and Warren Adelson, were approached by the Director of the Dallas Museum of Art, Maxwell Anderson, who hoped to acquire the painting. After protacted negotiations, the museum’s trustees finally decided against the purchase and it returned to New York in December 2012. In April 2013, Sotheby’s Private Sales approached the owners and through them it was sold to an anonymous private collector and disappeared. In November 2014, Pietro Marani, the Milanese Leonardo expert, requested the Salvator Mundi for his forthcoming exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci. Il disegno del mondo, and asked Alexander Bell, Chairman of the Old Master Paintings Department of Sotheby’s London, to try to persuade the owner to lend it. He was unsuccessful.
In early 2016 a story appeared in The New Yorker 10 in which it was revealed that the owner was the Russian oligarch, Dmitry Rybolovlev, who had purchased the painting, along with many other, primarily early modern, paintings through a Swiss intermediary, Yves Bouvier. Rybolovlev had brought a suit for fraud against the Swiss Freeport owner, who had been adding significant markups to the purchase prices in addition to the 2% commission that Rybolovlev believed was their arrangement. Twelve of these sales were brokered by Sotheby’s. In the case of the Salvator Mundi, which was typical of these transactions, Bouvier bought the painting for $80 million and sold it to Rybolovlev the following day for over $125 million. By 2017, the Russian collector, reportedly discouraged by his foray into the art world, had decided to sell his collection. His new agent, Sandy Heller, arranged for the Salvator Mundi to be sent to my studio at the Conservation Center of New York University, where it arrived in mid-July. The painting had clearly not been taken out of its frame since it left New York in 2014, prepared for travel behind glass and protected by a Marvelseal enclosure. It emerged that there was a plan to sell it at Christie’s in their auction of Post war and Contemporary Art in November where it fetched $450 million, including fees.
Before the sale, I unframed the painting, did some minor work on the folds of the shoulder because the black underpaint had asserted itself, corrected a retouch above the lip with which I was never satisfied, and applied the final varnish, as I had always intended once the painting had been sold but which I had not had a chance to do before its sale to Rybolovlev. Shan Kuang, the Kress Fellow at the Conservation Center, made some new technical images. We reframed the panel behind glass in a Mavelseal enclosure, as before, for a pre-sale tour to Hong Kong, London, and San Francisco, and then unframed when it returned to New York. The painting remained with Christie’s until May 2018. Before it left, we again reframed it behind museum acrylic with a new Marvelseal enclosure.
To the best of my knowledge, it is in a Freeport in Zurich. Except for two brief periods—during the London exhibition, and during those mounted by Christie’s prior to the sale in November 2017—it has been inaccessible to both scholars and to the public.
Intermediate restoration, 2008, photograph Joshua Nefsky, copyright Salvator Mundi LLC.
- Ludwig Heinrich Heydenreich, “Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi.” Raccolta Vinciana 20 (1964), pp. 83-109
- Maria Teresa Fiorio, "Un Salvator Mundi ritrovato." Raccolta Vinciana 31 (2005), pp. 257-283
- Tancred Borenius, Herbert Cook, Maurice Brockwell, A Catalogue of the Paintings at Doughty House, Richmond, & Elsewhere in the Collection of Sir Frederick Cook, Vol. I (London, 1913), p. 123
- Martin J. Kemp, Living with Leonardo: fifty years of sanity and insanity in the art world and beyond (London 2018)
- Carmen Bambach, Leonardo da Vinci Revisited (New Haven, 2919), pp. 278-282
- Leonardo da Vinci’s technical practice: paintings, drawings and influence. (Paris, 2014)
- Sam Knight, “The Bouvier Affair.” The New Yorker, February 8 & 15, 2016