History of the salvador mundi

Oil on Walnut panel

Painted image dimensions:
64.5 x 44.7 cm (25 3/8” x 17 1⁄2”)
Top: 65.5 x 45.6 cm (25 13/16” x 17 15/16”)                                                  
Bottom: 65.5 x 45.1 cm ( 25 13/15 x 17 ¾”)

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, as well as numerous copies and variants by students and followers. In 1964, Ludwig Heydenreich, based on an analysis of the existing material, concluded that there was a lost prototype. 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

Before cleaning, 2005

Cook Collection, 1913

2005 Purchase

The 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.

The painting that appeared in the small sale was on a cradled panel, measuring  26” x 18 1/2”, and 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 Collection

Dr. 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, about $120.

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. At that time, I had an easel set up near the corner window of the living room and some basic conservation supplies: solvents, cotton, varnish, and a few tools. I removed the recent varnish and repaints in a matter of hours while Robert Simon watched. A number of passages, particularly the head, were damaged, and the background had been repainted brown. I was not immediately impressed. I knew nothing about Leonardo’s work of this period, nor that there was a lost composition of a Salvator Mundi, and I had a great deal on my mind taking care of my grievously ill husband. Later that afternoon, after Robert had left, I brought the painting to Mario. He held the panel and gazed at it for a long time in silence. And then he said: “This is by a very great artist,  but I don’t  know who it is. A generation after Leonardo. It’s 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.

I reluctantly agreed to work on the painting but first it needed panel work. It was sent to a specialist. Mario and I went to our country house in Florence for the summer. On January 28th, 2006, Mario died at home in New York. 

Cleaned state, Photgraph by Joshua Nefsky. copyright Salvator Mundi LLC

By December 2007, the restoration was at an advanced stage. Robert and I had been studying it, each in our own way. Robert’s research focused on possible provenances, and tracking down information about the many copies. It was obvious that there were a few pentimenti, or changes in the composition. Robert was impressed by them but as far as I was concerned they were relatively minor shifts and not significant enough to base an attribution on. In the recent past, I had worked on a number of paintings by Leonardo followers and pupils: Cesare da Sesto, Luini, Giampietrino, the Master of the Pala Sforzesca, and from the close scrutiny of the materials and technique required to restore the damages, I excluded these artists as the author of this painting because each had a recognizable style and none of them were capable of achieving a work of this quality. Only Boltraffio possessed the sensitivity and skill to execute this painting, but he has a distinct personality and I didn’t think this painting was by him. One evening, I was trying, once again, to retouch a loss in the upper lip. I could not master the imperceptible transition to my satisfaction and had removed my retouch numerous times. I had a copy of a book the Louvre had recently published about the Mona Lisa, which was lavishly illustrated (Mona Lisa: Inside the Painting). I removed the page with the detail of the mouth and pinned it to my easel. At that moment I realized that the Salvator Mundi could not have been painted by anyone except Leonardo. I sent Robert a message. We were finally in agreement and discussed what to do next. Advancing an attribution to the most famous artist of the Renaissance, whose entire oeuvre consists of 16 or 17 paintings at most, is a daunting proposal to advance. Dr. Carmen Bambach, an expert on Leonardo’s drawings, is a curator in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the Metropolitan Museum, which is just across the street. We invited her to come to my studio at the Conservation Center. The painting was on an easel. Carmen studied it for some time. She didn’t say anything and finally asked, “What do you think it is?” Robert was too embarassed to pronounce the name, but since I am only a restorer I spoke up and said, “We think that it’s by Leonardo.” She was silent again and then replied, “Well, it’s not by Boltraffio.” I took this as a good sign since it was also my reasoning. (Dr. Bambach has since attributed the painting to Boltraffio with “retouches” by Leonardo. Although she claims to have “followed the restoration”, that was the only time she saw the painting in my studio, or had heard anything about it.) 8

Although I hadn’t completed the restoration, the painting was sufficiently pulled together that Robert took it back to his gallery for the moment, where he showed it to Dr. Nicholas Penny, soon to become the director of the National Gallery in London, who agreed with him that the painting could be by Leonardo. In January Robert took the panel to the museum where three infrared images of the head, the blessing hand, and the mantle, stole and orb were made with an InGaAs scanner. (At that time we had a vidicon scanner, an older technology with a sensitivity up to 1100 nm, whereas the InGaAs sensor’s range extends to 1700nm and has other advantages in terms of processing the images.) Apparently, although no formal statment was made, the curatorial and conservation staff generally agreed that the painting was by Leonardo, albeit severely damaged. The painting remained at the museum until May in a state of limbo. Nicolas Penny suggested that Robert bring it to the National Gallery in London and invited five leading Leonardo scholars to view the painting in the conservation studio. They were: 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). Robert had prepared a Study Disc with the historical and technical research. It is not clear if all five experts agreed that the painting was Leonardo’s lost Salvator Mundi. Martin Kemp and David Alan Brown did. Pietro Marani endorsed the attribution and later asked that the painting be loaned in an exhibition he was curating in Milan but by that time it had been sold and had disappeared. He has since expressed some reservations about the attribution.  Maria Teresa Fiorio was intrigued by the well-preserved passages but felt that the ruinous condition of the head made it impossible to come to a firm conclusion. Carmen Bambach appeared to accept the attribution but later recanted. Luke Syson, Curator of Italian Paintings at the National Gallery, who was planning an exhibition, Leonardo at the Court of Milan, which would open in November 2011, was convinced that the painting was Leonardo’s lost composition of the Salvator Mundi. Because of its rarity and importance he decided to include it in the exhibition even though museums, as a rule, decline to show paintings that are on the market. Robert brought the painting back to New York.  

In preparation for the exhibition, London’s version of the Virgin of the Rocks was being cleaned and studied. I wanted to see it,  primarily to study the passages painted in black. It was one of the few later works by Leonardo that was not camouflaged by discolored, oxidized coats of varnish. 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 sufficently different from the brown repaint that Robert 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 painting returned to London for the opening of the exhibition. Just before it closed, in January 2012, the National Gallery organized a technical symposium where I gave a presentation about the technique and the restoration and showed the cleaned state image, which until then had only been seen by the various experts with whom Robert corresponded. The condition of the head created a certain amount of consternation.The collected papers were published in 2014 but since then the cleaned state image has been available to anyone who cared to consult this volume. 9

Robert Simon and Alexander Parish entered into a partnership with Warren Adelson, a dealer of American paintings, in particular works by John Singer Sargent and the Wyeth family. He became in charge of selling the painting. After the exhibition was over, he offered it to the Dallas Museum of Art. I went to Dallas to unframe the painting. Luke Syson, who had recently become the Head of the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum, also came. We both spoke to a small group of trustees. I addressed the issue of the condition of the painting and left the technical information with the conservator, an old friend and colleague, Mark Leonard. It has been said that after protacted negotiations lasting nine months, the museum was unable to raise the necessary funds. From my brief visit, my impression was that money was available. Althugh there seemed to be some support for the acquisition, Ross Perot, for one, immediately expressed an active distaste for the picture. It was evident to me that the majority of the trustees simply did not wish to buy it and it would have been better for the painting to recall it long before December 2012.  

The documentary film, The Lost Leonardo, makes it clear that perhaps even before the exhibition in London, but certainly afterward, the Salvator Mundi had been shopped around in such a way that by 2013 it was effectively  “burned”,  art market slang for an unsaleable painting.  Although it had become an untouchable as far as museums or serious private collectors were concerned, it was still tempting to buyers  from the underworld of Freeports, shell companies, and money laundering. This is the great tragedy in the saga of this painting.

In April 2013, Sotheby’s Private Sales approached the three owners on behalf of a client. With Sotheby’s as an intermediary, the Salvator Mundi was sold to a private collector, who wished to remain anonymous. In November 2014, Pietro Marani, the Milanese Leonardo expert, hoped to borrow the painting 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 declined. 

In early 2016 a story appeared in The New Yorker 10  revealing that the owner was a Russian oligarch, Dmitry Rybolovlev. It was a tangled tale. Rybolovlev had purchased the painting, along with many other, primarily twentieth-century paintings, through a Swiss intermediary, Yves Bouvier, the owner of numerous Freeports. Rybolovlev believed that Bouvier was acting as his agent, taking a 2% commission. In reality, Bouvier was buying paintings directly from the owners and immediately flipping them to Rybolovlev for a huge markup. Within a few years, he had pocketed 1 billion dollars. 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 $127.5 million. When the Russian discovered that he had been cheated, he became so angry and disillusioned that he decided to sell the entire collection. He sued Bouvier for fraud in various jurisdictions. The cases are ongoing. The first sales did not do well because he had paid more for the paintings than they were worth.

Dmitri Rybolovlev
Rybolovlev turned for help to Sandy Heller, an agent who was based in New York and represented many important collectors. In mid-July 2017, I received a message that someone at the “Geller Group” had called me about a Leonardo. I often receive strange communications from people who think they have a Leonardo, which I normally avoid, but suddenly I put two and two together and realized it must be Sandy Heller, of whom I had read in the New Yorker story. He told me that the Salvator Mundi was arriving in New York within a few days and would be sent to my studio at the Conservation Center of New York University. The painting appeared to have been taken out of its frame at some point but had been reinstalled behind glass with the same Marvelseal enclosure: the Marvelseal was a bit torn and different screws had been used to attach the backing board.

It emerged that Loic Gouzer, the brilliant head of Christie’s  Post war and Contemporary Art Department, conceived the idea of including it his November sale. This was unprecedented. A publicity campaign, called “The Last Leonardo”, was launched, featuring a video that captured the reactions of visitors as they viewed the Salvator Mundi. I found it deeply moving. I knew the power of the image and the effect it could have on people from various visits to the exhibition in London and from many messages I had received.  The evening of the auction, after 19 dramatic minutes, it fetched $450 million, including fees. The buyer was anonymous and the painting has not been exhibited since the sale. 

Loic Gouzer holding phone, being congratulated by Alex Rotter, right
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, my colleague at the Conservation Center, made some new technical images. We reframed the panel behind glass in a Mavelseal enclosure, as before, for the pre-sale tour, 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.

In December, the New York Times journalist, David Kirkpatrick, revealed that the buyer was Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud, acting for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Saudi government initially denied the story but then said that the painting would be exhibited at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which Tweeted a confirmation. The painting never appeared in Abu Dhabi and the museum finally said that the loan had been cancelled.  

Louvre Abu Dhabi
In July 2018, I had visited the curator of Italian Paintings at the Louvre, Vincent Delieuvin, where the painting, Saint John as Bacchus, once thought to be partly by Leonardo, was being restored. I gave him a USB key with all the technical information and images of the Salvator Mundi that I had. In mid-September 2018, a Swiss conservator in Zurich contacted me. He had been asked by an insurance company to carry out a condition check on the Salvator Mundi, which was in a Freeport. He had been told that it was in transit to the Louvre in Paris. I relayed this information to Vincent, who professed to be mystified. 

Even before the Christie’s sale, the Louvre had requested the loan of the painting for their Leonardo exhibition, which was scheduled to open in October 2019. When the exhibition opened without the Salvator Mundi, critics of the attribution alleged that this was because the Louvre didn’t believe that the painting was by Leonardo. I knew this wasn’t true.

In March 2020, by chance, I saw a catalogue about the Salvator Mundi, written by Vincent Delievin and two researchers from the Louvre’s scientific department, C2RMF, with a preface by the Director of the Louvre thanking the Ministry of Culture of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the loan of the painting, affirming that the museum had concluded that it was entirely by Leonardo. Evidently, the painting did go to the Louvre for technical study in 2018. When I couldn’t find the book for sale anywhere, I wrote to Vincent. He replied that the book had been suppressed because curators at French museums were forbidden by law to discuss the attributation of a painting that was not on loan. A few months later, news of the existence of this catalogue had leaked out and was published in The Art Newspaper, although they had actually not seen it. Apparently there was more than one copy in circulation. 

In April 2021 a French documentary film, featuring two disguised figures who purport to be government officials, repeated the false rumor that Saudi Arabia had refused to loan the Salvator Mundi because the Louvre didn’t accept the attribution. David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times, still following the story, was able to obtain the suppressed catalogue. Faced with the evidence, French goverment officials  revealed that negotiations for the loan had broken down because Saudi Arabia insisted that the Salvator Mundi be hung next to the Mona Lisa. As Kirkpatrick observed, “Far from a dispute about art scholarship, the withdrawal of the painting appears instead to have turned on questions of power and ego.” 

Intermediate restoration, 2008, photograph Joshua Nefsky, copyright Salvator Mundi LLC.

After restoration, June 2010. Photographer unknown. Copyright Salvator Mundi LLC

  1. Ludwig Heinrich Heydenreich, “Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi.” Raccolta Vinciana 20 (1964), pp. 83-109
  2. Maria Teresa Fiorio, "Un Salvator Mundi ritrovato." Raccolta Vinciana 31 (2005), pp. 257-283
  3. 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
  4. Martin J. Kemp, Living with Leonardo: fifty years of sanity and insanity in the art world and beyond (London 2018)
  5. Carmen Bambach, Leonardo da Vinci Revisited (New Haven, 2919), pp. 278-282
  6. Leonardo da Vinci’s technical practice: paintings, drawings and influence. (Paris, 2014)
  7. Sam Knight, “The Bouvier Affair.” The New Yorker, February 8 & 15, 2016

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