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Four Hundred Million and Change

November 17, 2017
Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci
Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci

By now most people have heard about the record breaking sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting Salvator Mundi (Latin for Savior of the World), which was recently hammered down at auction for $450,312,500, making it the most expensive work of art ever offered for sale. The previous record was held by Picasso, whose Women of Algiers smashed auction records a few years ago, selling for 179 million.


Art scholars and enthusiasts like myself have long been familiar with this Leonardo painting, which has always been controversial. Salvator Mundi was a theme popular with Northern European artists like the Van Eyck brothers and Durer, and for centuries it was thought Leonardo’s painting had been lost. The painting recently fetching such an astronomical figure was thought to be a workshop copy or created by a Leonardo imitator because it just wasn’t good enough to have been painted by Leonardo, who’d been placed on a pedestal above all other artists. In fact, because of his restless mind Leonardo’s work could be extremely uneven, even in his mature years.


If Leonardo experts could erase one painting from Leonardo’s oeuvre, it would certainly be his John the Baptist from 1513-16, thought to be his last painting. Many critics consider this work a failure. Leonardo developed a mode of painting called sfumato, from the Italian word for smoke, a technique using soft, vague or blurry edges. Sfumato, built from countless glazes, is what gives Mona Lisa her unbelievably lifelike smile. John the Baptist has a similar smile, but his eroticism is confusing and the doughy anatomy not what we expect from someone who dissected cadavers and filled notebooks with brilliant anatomical drawings.




St. John the Baptist by Leonardo da Vinci


Which brings me back to Salvator Mundi. There’s a premise in the art world that explains why this small painting fetched such a ridiculous price: a bad painting by a famous artist is more desirable than a masterpiece by an unknown artist. In this painting, the face of Christ is flat and not well modeled like other works by the Master, and the sfumato is uneven—the cuffs are painted in a hard light vastly different from the rest of the painting, perhaps explaining why it sold in the 1950s for a mere $10,000. Recently, enough Leonardo scholars have viewed the restored painting and deemed it authentic, one of less than 20 paintings definitively attributed to Leonardo and the last one in private hands.


How convenient! Scientific analysis, unavailable in previous centuries, has now made this mediocre painting famous, the most expensive work of art ever sold, arguably the most expensive single item ever sold.


The name Leonardo da Vinci is rightfully associated with one of the greatest minds of all time and, if those lining up in front of Christie’s Auction House to catch a glimpse of Salvator Mundi are any indication, a fortune in exhibition fees will be reaped by the new owner of the painting.


Okay, it’s rare, but it really isn’t very good. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t find a place for it on one of my walls. Besides, I really like the frame and have a painting I think will fit it nicely.




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That figure is really hard to comprehend especially after your description of the painting, the frame is nice but I think you can find one a little better priced...
By: Jimmy on November 17, 2017
You can see now why Congress is working so hard to give rich people a tax cut; they just don't have enough money! lol Honestly it is not a great painting and for the price the owner could have bought like 23 rides into space, entirely financed a Star Wars movie, or bought half an F-35--maybe the half that works. The sheer avarice is disgusting.
By: PT Dilloway on November 17, 2017
If I paint one really good painting & have it declared a masterpiece, does that mean I could get a good price for the rest of the crap I've done?
By: fishducky on November 17, 2017
I don't like either of these paintings- regardless of who painted them. When we buy art it is because we like the art, not because who the artist was or how much it cost.
By: Kathe W. on November 17, 2017
This is just more proof that the world is insane. Ha!
By: The Bug on November 17, 2017
It makes no sense to me that anyone would want to pay that much for a work of art, no matter who painted it. But, to each his own.
By: messymimi on November 17, 2017
I will know who to contact if I somehow make so much money that I need to spend $450 million on a decent painting. Holy cannoli! Thanks for sharing your expertise on why it's actually not a good painting.
By: Mr. Shife on November 17, 2017
I trust your judgement on it's quality. I personally wouldn't have gone over $425,000,000, but then I was always cheap. ;)
By: scott park on November 17, 2017
Stephen, thanks again for sharing your artistic knowledge and insight. I was under the impression there is a possibility the John Baptist was done by a student of da Vinci, or an imitator in that era. As for the Salvator Mundi, I've been struck by the focus of the eyes-almost unfocused or deeply ethereal. They are rendered in such a way as to be mystifying if not mystical. And there is the radiance of his skin as though showing an inner light. It is an hypnotic painting.
By: Tom Cochrun on November 17, 2017
Interesting, truth be told, I don't think the Mona Lisa is so great, but I clearly know nothing about art. Why is Jesus wearing a dress? 450 mil is crazy, but then people pay $10,000 for rare Beany Babies or Yugio cards, not great investments to my mind. Does the auction house get 10%? that would be some commission. Crazy what people will do with stupid money.
By: cranky on November 17, 2017
I'd rather have your paintings. I'm not an art expert, but I know what I like. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on November 17, 2017
This is a little off topic, but Salvator Mundi looks like a guy who waits tables in a local eating establishment. He always looks like he is freshly stoned. Where was I? I've said it here before and I stand by it - I don't know what 's supposed to be considered good art but I know what I like, and so does my husband, and that's how we decide what to buy, so thank goodness we agree :)
By: jenny_o on November 17, 2017
Pretty cheeky conclusion! Art becomes complicated when the painting must be analized to discover if da Vinci painted it or not.
By: red on November 17, 2017
I was just watching this on the news. Thanks for filling in the story.
By: Marcia @ Menopausal Mother on November 17, 2017
Maybe you could talk them down a couple dollars on the frame! Hick, of all people, was the one who broke this news to me, on our 9-hour drive to Oklahoma.
By: Val on November 17, 2017
"a bad painting by a famous artist is more desirable than a masterpiece by an unknown artist" - you've captured, in a nutshell, why I tend to view the art world with such disdain :(
By: Botanist on November 17, 2017
I like the frame, too! I have a such a difficult time with the absurd prices these works fetch when there are so many people in the world without the means to buy food or pay their bills. Wouldn't it be ironic if future experts determine it's a fake after all?!?
By: Mitchell is Moving on November 18, 2017
There is something about it that is intriguing, almost like he's tried to create Jesus as a spirit rather than in total human form. Maybe he was trying to create what he imagined Jesus to look like after his crucification?
By: LL Cool Joe on November 18, 2017
all I can think about is all the artists that are struggling to make a living and this painting gets sold for over 450 mil. this is what rich people do with their money when they aren't hoarding it.
By: Ellen Abbott on November 18, 2017
When I heard the story on TV, I was wondering what would Stephen stay about it. Thanks for coming through. I'm still having a time trying to imagine anyone who has 450 million, disposable income.
By: Arkansas Patti on November 18, 2017
What kind of deranged bazillionaire spends their money on items like this? And what next? Hire around-the-clock guards to assure it's not stolen? I can't wrap a single braincell around it. But I can envision you making much better use of that frame, Stephen.
By: Robyn Engel on November 18, 2017
I read the best comment by, I believe, an art critic. He said "There is too much money in the world."
By: Catalyst on November 18, 2017
Who was the person that bought the painting? (I'm tempted to add, as I do when someone on House Hunters buys an expensive vacation home, "...and where do they work?")
By: Pixel Peeper on November 19, 2017
Thanks for explaining sfumato. I don't like it. That smoky haze around Jesus's neck just makes him look like he has a huge fat neck. like the frame? I thought the frame was hideous...clearly, it is in need of a different frame. But what framer would dare to touch a $450 million dollar painting. I'm afraid it will be stuck in that frame for all time.
By: Michael Offutt on November 20, 2017
FWIW: More money than brains. That kind of money could feed and house a lot of people.
By: Daniel LaFrance on November 20, 2017
I just don't get it but the Art World is an insane place. It will probably hang in some vault for a while. I always wonder why Leo created so many figures with fingers pointing somewhere
By: Birgit on November 22, 2017
It was hard for me to wrap my head around the price of this painting. You could almost round it off to a half billion.
By: Rick Watson on November 26, 2017

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