Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, Leonardo to his friends, was a busy man, the very definition of the word polymath. He invented, he designed, he dissected, he calculated, and in between he sculpted, sketched, and painted. We also hear he was a terrific dancer. Now, you may be inclined to believe, particularly if you’re standing in line at the Louvre as you read this, that da Vinci was, first and foremost, a big-time painter, and there’s no denying he had some hits, including the most copied (and parodied) religious artwork of all time. But among his many creations from a career that spanned close to 50 years, art historians have identified fewer than 20 paintings. (By comparison, there are close to 2,000 authenticated Pablo Picasso canvases floating around.) And of those 20-ish da Vincis, there’s only one in private hands.
On November 15, that painting, the Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World), will cross the auction block at Christie’s in New York City. Estimated selling price? In the neighborhood of $100 million (which, coincidentally, is about what Hamilton tickets are running these days).
Fortunately, even in New York, looking is still free, and Christie’s plans to welcome the art-curious to its Rockefeller Center showroom for a look at the painting before the sale. “We pride ourselves on being free and open to the public for all of our exhibitions, and we encourage everyone to come view our shows,” says Christie’s New York press rep Rebecca Riegelhaupt.
Although da Vinci’s preliminary drawings of the painting existed, the work itself was pretty much written off. The oil-on-wood panel—whose original brushstrokes were obscured under gloppy layers of over-paint and varnish — had belonged England’s King Charles I before bouncing from one private collection to another, all the while unattributed to da Vinci. That is, until 2005, when its owner brought the piece to New York art dealer and Old Master expert Robert Simon for a closer look. His curiosity piqued, Simon enlisted assistance from Dianne Dwyer Modestini, an expert from NYU’s Samuel H. Kress Program at the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts. Modestini jumped on the project, and seven years later, after a meticulous restoration and vetting by da Vinci scholars from all over the world, Salvator Mundi was officially back. And now it’s coming to auction.
To put the monumentality of the Salvator Mundi rediscovery/restoration/resale into perspective, the last time anybody ID’d a long-lost da Vinci painting was back in 1909.
“To see a fully finished, late masterpiece by Leonardo, made at the peak of his genius, appear for sale in 2017 is as close as I’ve come to an Art World Miracle,” says Alan Wintermute, a senior specialist of Old Master paintings at Christie’s. The work, which is about 26 inches high and 18 inches wide, depicts a half-length figure of Jesus Christ, right hand raised in benediction and left hand holding a crystal orb, symbolizing the Earth. It dates to about 1500, putting it close in the da Vinci timeline to the Mona Lisa.
Befitting its rock-star status, the Salvator Mundi embarked on a world tour before its date with the gavel in New York, playing Hong Kong (October 13-16), San Francisco (October 17-21), and London (October 24-26), before arriving at 20 Rockefeller Plaza on October 28, where it is now on view—free to the public—until the morning of November 15. The main event, Christie’s Evening Sale of Post-War and Contemporary Art, kicks off at 7:30 that evening.