There’s been only one constant in the erratic trajectory of Leonardo da Vinci‘s “Salvator Mundi” since it publicly emerged as the most expensive artwork ever auctioned, only to be submerged (hopefully not literally) ever since. The only thing that’s certain about the fate of this elusive painting is that the story about why it hasn’t publicly surfaced since it was sold more than three years ago at Christie’s, New York for a record-busting $450.3 million (against a presale estimate “in the region of $100 million”) keeps on changing.
Each new explanation of its various missed opportunities to reappear in public strains credulity. The latest head-scratcher was its no-show as an expected highlight of the Louvre’s landmark 2019-20 Leonardo retrospective: We’re now being asked to believe that a loan agreement between the Paris museum and the Saudi Arabian Culture Ministry fell apart due to the Saudis’ insistence that their “Male Mona Lisa” be installed chock-a-block with the Louvre’s undisputed female version. According to the Apr. 12 front-page story in the NY Times (online Apr. 11) about a “confidential French report” that it had obtained, “The withdrawal of the painting appears to have turned on questions of power and ego” …
…or maybe not. I think the theory that both sides lacked the rudimentary bargaining skills needed to arrive at a mutually desired cultural objective will prove to be as suspect as all the other discarded discussions that we’ve heard about the plans for this elusive painting:
It’s hard to believe (as several accounts would have it) that a plan to show the painting at the Louvre fell through due to an irrational, stubborn insistence by the Saudis that their painting be installed at the Louvre in a manner that the organizers of the exhibition judged (with good reason) to be unsafe, unfeasible and inappropriate: It is the role of the museum director and curator, not the lender, to make the final determination as to a painting’s placement. The Times report (pegged to the release last week of director Antoine Vitkine‘s controversial French documentary rehashing doubts about the painting’s attribution) noted that “extraordinary security measures surrounding the ‘Mona Lisa’ make the painting exceptionally difficult to move from its place on a special partition in the center of the Salle des États, a vast upstairs gallery. Placing a painting next to it would be impossible, the French officials argued.”
If you’ve ever been among the admirers ogling “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre, you know that it’s hard enough to get more than a brief, partly obstructed glimpse of that crowd-magnet, even without inserting it into a blockbuster exhibition. (I’ve seen it twice at the Louvre, and once, as a young teen, at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.)
Some (including the makers of the new French documentary, which made the sensationalistic suggestion that “Salvator Mundi” might be “one of the greatest scams in the history of art”) have raised the possibility that doubts about its authorship scuttled the Louvre’s interest in displaying it. But indications are that Vincent Delieuvin, co-organizer of the Leonardo exhibition as the Louvre’s chief curator at the Department of Paintings (specializing in 16-century Italian works), believes in the painting’s attribution to Leonardo. That’s the takeaway from separate articles by Didier Rykner in La Tribune de l’Art (on Apr. 9) and Alison Cole in The Art Newspaper (on Apr. 13), both of whom quoted key passages that they said were excerpted from a small book, produced by the Louvre, which analyzes the painting.
Rykner reported that the Louvre’s director, Jean-Luc Martinez, in his introduction to that monograph (which was not widely released but has been seen by a number or experts, including one with whom I recently spoke), stated that “the results of the historical and scientific study presented in this book confirm the attribution of the work to Leonardo da Vinci [emphasis added], an attractive hypothesis proposed in the early 2010s and which has sometimes been contested.”
Delieuvin’s essay in the same monograph—“The Salvator Mundi. A rediscovery”—affirmed Martinez’s conclusion. As quoted by Rykner, the Louvre’s chief curator stated the following (translated from the French):
The painting from the old Cook collection [the $450.3-million”Salvator Mundi”] is…distinguished from other versions [of the same subject] by its very subtle underdrawing, by the presence of important pentimenti and by the extraordinary pictorial quality of the well-preserved parts. All of these arguments encourage favoring the idea of an entirely autograph work [emphasis added], unfortunately damaged by the poor conservation of the support and by old restorations that are no doubt too brutal [my link, not his, to my December 2018 interview with Dianne Modestini, the conservator who restored the painting to its current appearance].
Like the painting, the monograph (which is believed to have been destined for public release, if the painting had been publicly exhibited) has vanished, but not before several art experts and journalists (not I) got hold of it.
One of “Salvator Mundi’s” most illustrious doubters is said to be Metropolitan Museum curator Carmen Bambach, who was among those consulted before it was exhibited as a Leonardo at the 2011-12 exhibition at the National Gallery, London—Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan. Bambach had dodged my question about whether she believed “Salvator Mundi” was by Leonardo when she gave me a personal walk-through at the press preview for her 2017 Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer show at the Met. But in June 2019, she explicitly told Dalya Alberge of The Guardian that she disagreed with the Leonardo attribution, according to that British newspaper’s report.
According to the Lot Essay (click “Read more” to access it) in Christie’s catalogue for “Salvator Mundi,” an international group of leading experts who were consulted before its showing at the National Gallery, London, had reached a “broad consensus” supporting the painting’s Leonardo attribution. In its post-sale press release, Christie’s underscored the importance of the National Gallery’s imprimatur:
The inclusion of Salvator Mundi in the National Gallery’s landmark 2011-12 exhibition of Leonardo’s surviving paintings—the most complete display of such works ever held—sealed its acceptance as a fully autograph work by Leonardo da Vinci.
But it now appears, that the “consensus” of consulted experts was less than unanimous, with at least one—Bambach—dissenting.
That put her at odds with Luke Syson, her colleague at the Metropolitan Museum at the time of her Michelangelo show. (Syson had curated the London show before moving to the Met in January 2012. He moved back to England in 2019 to direct the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.) When I encountered him at a Met press event, Syson made a point of thanking me for my positive reaction to “Salvator Mundi,” arrived at after twice eyeballing it during the Christie’s previews (not quite in the same league with Bambach’s more considered, deeply scholarly opinion).
Skeptics notwithstanding, these patient New Yorkers, as seen in the 2-inches-apart social-distancing days, clearly believed that “Salvador Mundi” was the real deal:
What happened next is a strange tale: There were conflicting reports on who had actually bought the painting. On Dec. 8, 2017, the United Arab Emirates’ English-language newspaper, The National, thought it had the answer:
Louvre Abu Dhabi has confirmed it will display “Salvator Mundi” by Leonardo da Vinci after the $450 million (Dh1.65 billion) artwork was acquired by the government.
In a tweet [my link, not theirs], the newly opened museum said it was looking forward to putting the masterpiece on display in Abu Dhabi.
Saudi sources confirmed to The National that western newspaper reports that the painting had been bought by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman were wrong. [So much for the reliability of “Saudi sources.”] Instead it is the UAE that has landed the prized work [emphasis added], which will now go on display at the museum, which is at the heart of a fast emerging cultural district in the capital…
…or maybe not.
It is now widely accepted that the painting’s owner is, in fact, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), whose bids were conveyed at Christie’s by a little known Saudi prince, Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud. The Louvre had confirmed that it had wanted to include the painting in its landmark retrospective.
I emailed the Louvre’s press office (and cc’d Delieuvin), trying to verify the accuracy of the quotes (reproduced by me above) that Rykner of La Tribune de l’Art had attributed to Martinez and Delieuvin in the museum’s undistributed monograph. (The key takeaway from those was that the Louvre had not only wanted to display “Salvator Mundi” but also accepted its attribution to Leonardo.) I acknowledged knowing that the museum has “a general policy of not commenting on works that are not at the Louvre” (as I’d been told in response to previous queries), but expressed hope that “since the Louvre’s own book on ‘Salvator Mundi’ has been widely discussed publicly, and its contents widely circulated (even though not officially released),” they might be willing to help me by pointing out any inaccuracies in the published accounts, “so I don’t repeat them.”
That failed to persuade Céline Dauvergne, the museum’s spokesperson, who responded: “As the painting was not on loan at the Leonardo da Vinci retrospective in Fall 2019, the Musée du Louvre does not want to comment on that subject.”
If the reason for the rupture between the French and the Saudis wasn’t a question of attribution, and if the refusal to show “Salvator” next to the “Mona” was (as I believe) an improbable deal-killer, what might have actually been at play here?
For a possible answer, let’s try to untangle the complexities of foreign relations: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (home to the Louvre Abu Dhabi) had been close allies. But in August 2019 (two months before the Louvre’s Leonardo show opened in Paris), Reuters reported on “evidence of a fissure in the alliance” between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (of which Abu Dhabi is the capital), which had previously “looked inseparable on the world stage.” (More about their recently strained relations was detailed in this NY Times piece.)
My theory that diplomatic relations, not cultural relations, were the decisive factor here is supported by the reported involvement of French President Emmanuel Macron himself in this contretemps (as detailed in The Art Newspaper‘s account of the contents of the new French documentary). The entry of the French government’s top official into the fray suggests that this was more than a mere squabble between two museums.
In The Last Leonardo, the 2019 book chronicling the painting’s six-century saga, author Ben Lewis prophetically stated this:
At the time Martinez [the Louvre’s director] hoped to bring the painting to Paris, the new owner was thought to be Abu Dhabi, with which the Louvre has a partnership worth hundreds of millions of dollars. It has no such relationship with the Saudis. In the wake of the painting’s disappearance and of the Khashoggi affair, there are doubts that it will be included in the exhibition at all.
Those doubts, as we now know, were justified.
I’ll end these convoluted speculations with my most rewarding, least ambiguous takeaway from all the commentaries and quandaries that I’ve been puzzling over in this perplexing project: I’ve learned a new word! In my capacity as wordsmith, I marveled at a locution that I came upon while reading the NY Times‘ dissection of this situation:
“Frankly, I think all that taradiddle [emphasis added] would have evaporated,” said Luke Syson….If only the painting were displayed, he explained, “people could decide for themselves by experiencing the picture.”
Unless you’re British (like Syson), you’ll probably need to look that up. (I did.) But please, art-lings, don’t accuse me of taradiddling in these rambling writings!
A NOTE TO MY READERS: If you appreciate my coverage, please consider supporting CultureGrrl via PayPal by clicking the “Donate” button in the righthand column of the desktop version or the “DONATE” link in the menu at the top of the desktop and mobile versions. Contributors of $15 or more are added to my email blast for immediate notification of new posts.