World's most expensive 'fake'? The $450 million Salvator Mundi vanishes after its authenticity is questioned

Leonardo da Vinci's 'Salvator Mundi' has not been seen in public since it was sold by Christie's in 2017, and doubters claim it's because the painting is a fake.


                            World's most expensive 'fake'? The $450 million Salvator Mundi vanishes after its authenticity is questioned

Leonardo da Vinci's 'Salvator Mundi' — a painting depicting Jesus in a Renaissance dress and giving a benediction with his right hand raised and two fingers extended, while holding a transparent rock crystal orb in his left hand — became the world's most expensive painting when it was sold for $450 million in November 2017 by Christie's in New York. It has never been seen since.

It was initially unclear who had purchased the iconic painting, though it was later revealed that Christie's had sold the painting to Saudi Arabia's Prince Badr, who is the first and current Minister of Culture in the kingdom and who was acting on behalf of the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture & Tourism.

'Salvator Mundi' became the world's most expensive painting when it was sold by Christie's for $450 million (Source: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)
'Salvator Mundi' became the world's most expensive painting when it was sold by Christie's for $450 million (Source: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)

The plan was reportedly to unveil the painting at the new Louvre Abu Dhabi, which cost close to $1 billion including $400 million for the Louvre name, in September 2018. However, the unveiling was canceled at the last moment without explanation. French art experts now claim the subsequent plan to unveil 'Salvator Mundi' at a landmark exhibition at the Louvre in Paris in May in celebration of the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo is now similarly on hold over doubts that the painting may not even be authentic. 

According to the Daily Mail, the painting — which was authenticated as one of just 20 Leonardo originals by a panel of experts in 2008 —was painted in Leonardo's lifetime, has the same pigments of the oil paints used by him and was painted on walnut wood panel, a surface he favored.

Experts have called into doubt the authenticity of the painting (Source: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Experts have called into doubt the authenticity of the painting (Source: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

However, experts say it was painted in the studio by one of his assistants by the name of Bernardino Luini and not Leonardo himself, who at most is believed to have added the odd detail, because numerous technical aspects are lacking. This assumption would be consistent with what is already known about the iconic painter and that he touched up some paintings in his studio or guided his assistants rather than painting it entirely.

Michael Daley, the founder and director of ArtWatch UK, an art preservation group, said the authenticity claims of 'Salvator Mundi' was 'built on scholarly sand' and that it was "an affront to scholarship, as much as it is an artistic insult to Leonardo" to present it as one of his originals. Daley admitted that Christ's raised hand was the best part of the picture and that the "two folded fingers, the bit of wrist and the drapery next to it are excellent" but pointed out how the other two fingers and the thumb are anatomically incorrect, which was very unlikely of Leonardo.

Experts suggest the painting was done by one of Leonardo's assistants (Source: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Christie's Auction House)
Experts suggest the painting was done by one of Leonardo's assistants (Source: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Christie's Auction House)

"Leonardo supposedly painted Salvator Mundi after the Mona Lisa and before his painting of St John," he said. "But it doesn’t have the quality of either, and both the Mona Lisa and St John are much more cracked. Just look at the painting of Christ’s ringlets in Salvator Mundi. It’s so much more mechanical than in the Mona Lisa. St John’s hair is much more substantial, lustrous and sensuous than Christ’s ringlets."

The glass orb on Christ's palm seems unlikely to have been painted by Leonardo as well. While glass is known to bend light, there is no distortion of what is being the orb in the painting, which would be unusual because of his background as a scientist and engineer. 

Before the painting was restored to its current state by Dianne Dwyer Modestini from New York University’s Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts, a well-respected figure in the art world, it also reportedly had several "pentimenti" — visible traces of earlier attempts made by an artist to perfect the image.