The mystery of the “Last Vinci” continues. the Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World), the most expensive painting in the world, has been at the heart of a lively controversy since 2010: is it really a work by Leonardo da Vinci? Or is it a painting taken out of his studio, produced by his students? The Louvre has already argued, supported by scientific studies, that it is a painting by the master of the Renaissance. Now the Prado museum, in Spain, affirms the opposite this week, confirming the content of a French documentary.
A painting that has often disappeared
Its course is worthy of a spy novel: produced around 1500, unsigned, it has long been lost, even if there are mentions in the Royal collection of England around 1649, then an auction in 1763. It was not until 1900 that it became “traceable”, thanks to its acquisition by the collector Francis Cook. Hence his nickname “Cook version”. the Salvator Mundi is then attributed to Bernardino Luini, then to Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, both pupils of Leonardo da Vinci. The Cook family resold it for 45 pounds sterling in 1958 to an American industrialist.
In 2005, the painting was bought at auction by art dealers for $ 1175. It is extremely damaged by makeshift restorations, by dint of varnish and additions of paint. The wood is broken, the whole is scarred. A mustache and beard have even been added. Restored almost in secret, it was exhibited with great fanfare in 2011 at the National Gallery in London, certified by art historian Martin Kemp, specialist in Da Vinci.
The most expensive paint in the world
After being acquired in 2013 by Russian businessman Dmitri Rybolovlev for 127.5 million dollars, it was auctioned in 2017 and became the most expensive painting in the world: 450.3 million dollars. The previous record was held by Women of Algiers by Pablo Picasso, sold for 179.4 million dollars in 2015. Although kept secret at the time of the auction, the name of the new owner is revealed by Antoine Vitkine in his documentary Salvator Mundi, the astonishing affair of the last Vinci : Mohammed ben Salman, known as “MBS”, crown prince of Saudi Arabia.
Since then, the painting has (again) disappeared. It was to be exhibited at Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2017, but ultimately not. In any case, it is at the heart of intense diplomatic negotiations. Antoine Vitkine maintains that MBS would have asked France that the work be hung, during the exceptional retrospective on Leonardo da Vinci from 2019-2020 at the Louvre (on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of his death), next to the famous Mona Lisa, thus confirming that it is indeed a Da Vinci. Emmanuel Macron himself would have refused.
Controversy and politics
Why ? Because its authenticity is not unanimous. And is even subject to controversy. Before its exhibition at the National Gallery, four experts from Da Vinci are called to give their opinion. Only Martin Kemp attributes it to the Italian master. In his documentary, Antoine Vitkine questions an anonymous “senior official” about the research carried out by the Research and Restoration Laboratory of the Museums of France (C2RMF). He claims that the Louvre classified the painting as a “studio work” with a “minimal participation” by the master in a published exhibition catalog, then quickly withdrawn from sale at the request of Saudi Arabia. that the almighty MBS have acquired, for an insane amount, a fake is not a hypothesis to shout from the rooftops …
A dramatic change in May 2021, The Drouot Gazette finds one of these publications: “The results of the historical and scientific study presented in this work confirm the attribution of the work to Leonardo da Vinci”, indicates the preface by Jean-Luc Martinez, curator of Italian painting . The latter underlines the bad state of the work, “disfigured by coarse repainting of restoration”. What, according to him, is at the origin of the controversy: it is difficult to “distinguish these repaints from the clumsy intervention of an assistant”. Hence the interest of the results of scientific research.
For Vincent Delieuvin, chief curator in charge of 16th century Italian painting at the Louvre, “many contradictory and ill-informed opinions have been given. It will undoubtedly take years to convince all the critics.”
The Prado throws a paving stone in the pond
In any case, the Prado Museum in Madrid has chosen: for him, the work is from the workshop, not from Leonardo da Vinci. This statement is included in the exhibition catalog “Leonardo and the copy of Mona Lisa. New approaches to the uses of the artist’s studio. “The Prado highlights the different versions of the master’s paintings, reproduced by his students, like the copy of the Mona Lisa, exhibited at the Madrid museum.
“Some specialists consider that there was a prototype now lost, while others believe that the highly controversial Cook version is the original,” writes Ana Gonzales Mozo, curator of the Prado. Among the twenty or so versions identified, the Salvator Mundi said Ganay version – exhibited in Madrid – would be the oldest copy of the lost original and, therefore, the closest to Leonardo’s masterpiece. “
The curator of the Louvre put forward
History to add to the general vagueness, Ana Gonzales Mozo quotes … Vincent Delieuvin, who wrote an essay for the Prado. Although he does not comment on the origin, he does estimate the details of the Salvator Mundi “of surprisingly poor quality” and wants further analysis, “with more objectivity”.
In videoconference, October 14, dealing with the organization of the 2019-2020 event exhibition, Vincent Delieuvin is questioned about the controversial work. He explains, with a smile, “not having all the explanations” for his absence, but that it was not a “necessary” work for the exhibition. “I think it’s a very interesting painting,” he says. “But it’s not Da Vinci’s most original or personal work. reproductions of his workshop. “
“My work is above all scientific,” he continues. “But when it comes to Leonardo, everything takes on different proportions: economic when we ask a private individual to lend us a work; political when we ask a country or a national of a country which has complicated relations with France … Salvator Mundi being in the hands of an individual, we cannot do all the required expertise. Therefore today, nothing can be affirmed. I hope this can be done and this painting can finally be presented to the public.
“Maybe when I retire I will write a book on Salvator Mundi ! “, he laughs. In any case, the mystery is far from over.