The Price of Fame
He was a talented man—what we call today a “Renaissance Man.” He was renowned for his skills as an architect, mathematician, engineer, astronomer, botanist, and cartographer. He created designs for a parachute, helicopter and tank— and was even an early adopter of designs for concentrated solar power.
He was also a painter. And if you haven’t heard of his work, “Salvator Mundi,” the odds are good that you will soon. Because this is the work of a painter who now holds the distinction having set an all-time record for a price paid anytime, anywhere for a single work of art.
The painter was Leonardo da Vinci. You may be familiar with his most famous masterpiece—the Mona Lisa. And here is Salvator Mundi (The Savior of the World), which just sold at auction for $450 million dollars.
Savlator Mundi has been called the “male Mona Lisa,” as well as “the Last Da Vinci.” The 500-year-old painting didn’t just break the previous art record’s sales price—the $179.4 million fetched by Picasso’s Les femmes d’Alger— it shattered it.
The price paid shouldn’t really surprise anyone. But it did: pre-auction estimates were in the $100M range, less than 25% of what was actually paid by a (still unknown) bidder. This was not the first superlative for Leonardo Da Vinci:
- Mona Lisa is the most famous and most parodied portrait of all time
- The Last Supper is the most reproduced religious painting of all time.
- Da Vinci’s drawing of the Vitruvian Man is a cultural icon—now owned by the world’s richest man, Bill Gates
The name of the painting and its subject matter are not unique. Salvator Mundi is Latin for “Savior of the World” and is a subject addressed by painters of no less esteem than Jan van Eyck, Albrecht Dürer, and several versions by Titian, including one in the Hermitage Museum. The paintings typically depict Jesus Christ with his right hand raised in a blessing, and his left hand holding an orb—which symbolizes the Earth. The cross which surmounts the orb is known as a globus cruciger.
What is certainly interesting about Da Vinci’s version– which depicts Christ in Renaissance dress—is how close the modern world came to never seeing it.
The authenticated work was originally painted in the early 1500s for Louis XII of France. It was recorded later in 1649 in the art collection of Charles I of England and was auctioned in 1763 by the son of the Duke of Buckingham and Normandy, finally appearing in 1900 when it was purchased by a British art collector: Francis Cook, 1st Viscount of Montserrat.
By that time, the painting had undergone previous restoration attempts, and the provenance had become unclear. Amazingly, the painting was sold at auction in 1958 for £45.
Fast forward to 2005, when the painting was acquired by a group of art dealers. The work had been heavily over-painted and looked like a copy. But Da Vinci expert Martin Kemp said, upon his first viewing of the restored painting that he knew just what it was:
“It had that kind of presence that Leonardos have … that uncanny strangeness that the later Leonardo paintings manifest.”
A number of features led to the attribution: Changes made to the work as it progressed (called pentimenti ), particularly around the right thumb of the figure, are typical of the Da Vinci. He also had the habit of pressing the side of his palm into the paint (sfumato)—seen in many known works—and that is also present in this painting. And finally, just looking at the piece: the ringlets of hair and the detail in the hands are compelling in and of themselves. But the pigments and walnut panel which was the surface for painting are perhaps the most compelling of all: they are consistent with other known works by Leonardo Da Vinci.
After the painstaking restoration and authentication process, Salvator Mundi was finally exhibited by London’s National Gallery between 2011 and 2012. In 2013, the painting was acquired for $127.5 million by Russian art collection Dmitry Rybolovlev for $127.5 million.
Rybolovlev got a great deal, considering the final auction price was over 3.5 times what he paid.
Quality is quality, and the very finest quality is timeless. There had been some arguments that paintings by Old Masters simply weren’t bringing in money like they used to—but the sale of Salvator Mundi by Leonardo Da Vinci proved that talk completely wrong.
Leonardo Da Vinci was an artist who truly possessed Design Inspiration and Roos International doesn’t find it odd at all that Da Vinci was also an architect. What is architecture, after all, but artistry written on a large scale?
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