Sandwiched between onlookers who’d waited in line outside in the cold to be ushered into the dimmed Christie’s gallery to gaze and gawk at what the auction house trumpets as “the greatest and most unexpected artistic rediscovery of the 21st century” — that is, a brand-new Leonardo da Vinci lost in the 1600s, scheduled to be auctioned off this week — a well-known expert in the field leaned over and asked me a question. “Why is a Leonardo in a Modern and Contemporary auction?” Before I could say, “Yeah! Why?” he answered, “Because 90 percent of it was painted in the last 50 years.” He’s right. Not only does it look like a dreamed-up version of a missing da Vinci, various X-ray techniques show scratches and gouges in the work, paint missing, a warping board, a beard here and gone, and other parts of the painting obviously brushed up and corrected to make this probable copy look more like an original.
The painting is titled Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World) and is a portrait of a smoky floating man in a blue robe looking at us, raising his right hand in blessing, holding a crystal orb in his left hand, pictured against a black background. It’s said to have been painted around 1500, when the real Leonardo would have been 48 years old and already the most famous artist alive. On Wednesday night, this small picture is being auctioned off by Christie’s with massive jubilation. The opening bid is set at $100 million. (Which might even seem cheap when you remember that Damien Hirst’s 2007 For the Love of God, a diamond-and-platinum-encrusted human skull, was priced the same.) This explains why one Christie’s official rapturously primed the collector pump by wondering aloud if someone might bid “$2 billion.” In a world this out of whack, that could happen. Promoting the sale is a glossy 162-page book with quotes from Dostoyevsky, Freud, and Leonardo, and several platitudinal Christie’s videos of enraptured gazers gawking in wonder at “the new masterpiece.” Don’t miss the extended clip of three male company bigwigs pitching it to Hong Kong clients as “the holy grail of our business, a male Mona Lisa, the last da Vinci, our baby, something with blockbuster appeal, akin to the discovery of a new planet, and more valuable than a petro chemical plant.”
I’m no art historian or any kind of expert in old masters. But I’ve looked at art for almost 50 years and one look at this painting tells me it’s no Leonardo. The painting is absolutely dead. Its surface is inert, varnished, lurid, scrubbed over, and repainted so many times that it looks simultaneously new and old. This explains why Christie’s pitches it with vague terms like “mysterious,” filled with “aura,” and something that “could go viral.” Go viral? As a poster, maybe. A two-dimensional ersatz dashboard Jesus.
Why else do I think this is a sham? Experts estimate that there are only 15 to 20 existing da Vinci paintings. Not a single one of them pictures a person straight on like this one. There is also not a single painting picturing an individual Jesus either. All of his paintings, even single portraits, depict figures in far more complex poses. Even the figure that comes remotely close to this painting, Saint John the Baptist, also from 1500, gives us a turning, young, randy-looking man with hair utterly different from and much more developed in terms of painting than the few curls Christie’s is raving about in their picture. Leonardo was an inventor of — and in love with — posing people in dynamic, weaving, more curved, and corkscrewing positions, predicting the compositions of Raphael, then in his 20s, and already being highly influenced, according to Vasari, by his acquaintance Leonardo. Renaissance masters were all about letting figures interact with the surface and the structure of the painting, curving space, involving the viewer in way more than an old-fashioned direct headshot. Leonardo never let a subject come at you all at once like this much more Byzantine, flat, forward-facing symmetry. No other Renaissance master was involved with Byzantine portraiture like this either. They were all pushing way beyond that by then.
Christie’s marketing has played the “golden ratio” card heavily here. The golden section or golden ratio is said to have been developed almost 2500 years ago and was widely employed in ancient Greek art — which had a huge influence in the Renaissance. Basically, it’s a mathematical system of measuring space whereby rectangles and proportions within the painting can in turn be divided into an almost endless, fractal series of repeating smaller rectangles, squares, ovals, and the like. Christie’s painting is riddled with this proportion. However, I’d imagine that no great artist worth their name would stoop to being this obvious, especially this far into their career when they had total freedom to do whatever they liked and had a lifetime of always doing that in increasingly original ways. All those enthralled by the Salvatore Mundi being a perfect golden section need to get a grip and see that the golden section can be imposed one way or another on almost any image. Leonardo, who was nothing if not an inventor every time out, would have been laughed out of Italy.
By 1500, Michelangelo had already completed his tremendous Pietà in Rome and was in Florence working on the David. Botticelli was there too. It’s hard to imagine that da Vinci coming to Florence and being around the young Michelangelo — who was being hailed as “the new da Vinci” — would suddenly put the pictorial brakes on and produce a far more conservative, backward-looking picture. These artists were as competitive then as they are now. When Leonardo sat on the committee to decide where the still-unfinished David was to be situated in Florence, he voted against giving it the pride of place it eventually won, next to the Palazzo Vecchio. On top of all that, if we’re to believe this picture was made around 1500, that means Leonardo himself had already surpassed more primitive portraiture ideas like this, many times over, including in his many Madonnas, his beautiful Portrait of a Musician from 1485, and the two great Virgin of the Rocks, painted between 1483 and 1499. Not to mention his multi-spaced, multi-portrait, consciousness-expanding Last Supper, completed in 1498. It makes no sense to suddenly have Leonardo come to Florence only to become a hack painter of post-Byzantine portraits — which is what the narrative being promoted by Christie’s subtly suggests. In fact, we know Leonardo did just the opposite, because in 1502 he painted the Mona Lisa. Salvator Mundi doesn’t fit into his work no matter how you try to twist things. If we want to give Christie’s the benefit of the doubt, however, let’s be generous and say that this work does date from that time and that Leonardo did maybe paint a ringlet of hair and a hand. Even if that holds, the rest of the painting — including the intricate patterning and clear glass, which would have been a specialty of numerous studio assistants at the time — is still sensuously and physically inert. The painting is spooky and olden-looking like a lot of pictures of Jesus blessing saints, another argument against this being made by an artist of Leonardo’s epic skills.
This kind of salesmanship is an old game: pure and simple greed, an irresponsible knowing flimflam that defrauds a mass audience into thinking it is “appreciating” an old master when it’s all smoky spectacle and mirrors. One of the first things you’ll hear from a Christie’s official is “the only way to know what this painting is worth is to bring it to auction”; this is patently untrue. Were this a real da Vinci, its worth would be something known in the collective culture. The idea that the best test of a painting is to place it under the hammer at auction simply tells you how out of touch Christie’s has become. But it’s also a sign of a new system of authority, a sad sign of how much power the auction houses have acquired that one of them is pushing a new work by an old master — a work that some experts accept, while many others are highly skeptical of, and yet no furor has been raised. Those experts are probably thinking, “Well, scholarship changes every 20 years and others will correct this,” not wanting to rock the already splintering institutional boat. As in the wider world where people sit by for fear of losing position, it’s no wonder that many old master experts are keeping quiet, not saying much of anything. And of course no one at Christie’s can say, “Wait a minute, guys.” I know many of the people there; all are as passionate and knowledgeable about art as anyone I know. But if any of them think anything is fishy they’re all too far in now to risk their jobs by saying anything publicly, when the mood is “nothing is going to change anyway, and that train has already left the station.”
But all’s well that ends well, and this is bound to end well. By which I mean: poorly for Christie’s. No museum on Earth can afford an iffy picture like this at these prices — even if it’s true that any institution or collector who buys this painting for however much money will be able to foist it on viewers center stage as “the last da Vinci” and make bundles of money. And for any private collector who gets suckered into buying this picture and places it in their apartment or storage, it serves them right. (Though it is hard not to think of what better good that $100 million — or $2 billion — could do.) As for Christie’s, as an auction house, it should be shunned by the art world, recognized for what it is — a hostile witness to art. Let Andy Warhol have the last word in summing up what’s really going on; when he heard that the Mona Lisa was coming to New York in 1963, he said, “Why don’t they have someone copy it and send the copy, no one would know the difference.”