The Prodigal Art Returns – Salvator Mundi

Once thought to be lost, Salvator Mundi is, arguably, the most expensive painting in the world, having been sold in 2017 for the record sum of $450.3 million. It was created around 1500 and depicts Jesus Christ making a sign of the cross and holding a translucent orb.

History and Discovery

The oldest records of the painting’s owners suggest that Salvator Mundi was in London during the first half of the 17th century. It was, briefly, held by Henrietta Maria in 1649 and was given to Charles II around 1660, after being in the possession of the English Commonwealth. From then on, it changed royal owners until 1900, when it was bought by Francis Cook. Though the painting withstood the test of time, it did show quite a bit of wear-and-tear, in part due to the restoration done by one of Leonardo’s followers, Bernardino Luini.

What’s interesting is that the work was believed to be lost with only copies of the students remaining. That is why Cook’s great-grandson sold it for a mere £45 in 1958 as a painting by Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio. It wasn’t until 2005 that the experts started to suspect that the great master had a hand in making this masterpiece. A consortium of art dealers purchased the painting in 2005 for around $10,000.

Fixing the Restoration

Dianne Dwyer Modestini to thank for noticing that the painting was, well, overpainted. The bad treatment the work suffered through over the centuries led the experts and owners to believe it was not an original piece. However, Modestini removed a few coats with acetone and later discovered through infrared pictures of the painting that it depicted Jesus with two thumbs on his right hand, meaning that the painter was not sure where to place the thumb. This detail is present only with the original painters, as the copycats would have no such problem, and is known in the art world as pentimento, meaning repentance.

It was then, in 2006, that Modestini, the internationally renowned conservator, started her own restoration of the painting. Let us compare the once humble purchase of £45 to the one in 2013 to Yves Bouvier, when the painting was sold for a little over $75 million. Its current owner is Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan Al Saud, who bought it for $450.3 million. The artworld is still divided on whether the painting was done by Leonardo fully, partially, or not at all.