A Russian Art Connection.

Leonardo da Vinci, “Salvator Mundi” (c.1500), oil on panel, 25 7/8 x 18 in.(65.7 x 45.7 cm) (image courtesy Christie’s).

There was an astonishing sale at Christie’s, the last privately held da Vinci, supposedly, for an unprecedented amount of money: over $450 million dollars. The Russian connection is of interest, as is the doubtful provenance of the painting. There’s also the problem of such a painting, if it’s a true da Vinci, going into private hands. No museum could possibly have coughed up over 400 million for it.

Last night, Christie’s auction house sold “Salvator Mundi,” which it claims is the last painting by Leonardo da Vinci in private hands, for an astounding, record-setting $400M (the final price was over $450M with fees). The sale was controversial for a couple of reasons: that mind-numbing number itself, but also the fact that there are a lot of questions — and serious doubts — about the painting’s authenticity, restoration, and provenance.

One can therefore be forgiven for initially overlooking another elephant in the room — the identity of the seller. When there’s this much money involved, though, it usually pays to follow it, and here the money leads directly back to the Russian billionaire Dmitry E. Rybolovlev. Rybolovlev’s family trust sold the painting, through Christie’s, to an undisclosed buyer, but if his name sounds familiar for other reasons, that might be because in 2008 he paid (through a company he controlled) $95M to buy a Palm Beach mansion from Donald Trump.

You can read more about this at Hyperallergic, and there’s an earlier article too. The earlier article is disheartening, to say the least, as half of all the world’s wealth is in a very small circle of people, while little money ever goes to all those things which make for a healthy society. Once again, I’m reminded of A Perfect Circle’s new beatitude


  1. says

    I keep staring at that painting. I’d like to see it in person, because looking at this photo, something seems very…off. The top of the head and face are vague, there’s almost a sense of deliquescence; it doesn’t match the light and vibrancy seen in the bottom of the hair, the body, and the clothes.

  2. blf says

    The Grauniad had an article some time ago about the doubts over the painter(s), Mystery over Christ’s orb in $100m Leonardo da Vinci painting (the “$100m” refers to the then-estimated price it would get at the auction; the Grauniad’s edits in {curly braces}):

    Crystal sphere in Salvator Mundi artwork lacks optical exactitude, prompting experts to speculate over motive and authenticity

    [… I]n a forthcoming study, Leonardo da Vinci: the Biography, Walter Isaacson questions why an artistic genius, scientist, inventor, and engineer showed an “unusual lapse or unwillingness” to link art and science in depicting the orb.

    He writes: “In one respect, it is rendered with beautiful scientific precision{…} But Leonardo failed to paint the distortion that would occur when looking through a solid clear orb at objects that are not touching the orb.

    “Solid glass or crystal, whether shaped like an orb or a lens, produces magnified, inverted, and reversed images. Instead, Leonardo painted the orb as if it were a hollow glass bubble that does not refract or distort the light passing through it.”


    It is all the more puzzling, he notes, as Leonardo was at that time “deep into his optics studies, and how light reflects and refracts was an obsession”.

    He filled his notebooks with diagrams of light bouncing around at different angles, he says, wondering whether Leonardo “chose not to paint it that way, either because he thought it would be a distraction{…} or because he was subtly trying to impart a miraculous quality to Christ and his orb”.

    [… other doubts are discussed …]

    Michael Daley, the director of ArtWatch UK, [… said] “The Salvator Mundi is dead-pan flat, like an icon, with no real depth in the modelling. Another unexplained peculiarity is that the figure itself is heavily and uncharacteristically cropped.”


    It sounds like Mr Daley is expressing a similar doubt to that in the OP. I myself, whilst often dismissive of these “stylistic” doubts — I’m bothered by how subjective they at least seem† — find Mr Isaacson has a point.

    Christie’s, of course, obfuscates on both these (and presumably other) doubts; for instance (paraphrasing) Because this is a Da Vinci, who certainly knew and could have rendered the sphere’s optics correctly, but did not, we believe he choose to not do so to blah blah blah. Circular reasoning, anyone?

    On the other hand, artistes can have “off” days or projects that never seem to “come togther”. It could just be a non-very-specular original.

      † Obviously, I am not at all an expert here, so my tendency to dismiss “stylistic” attributions is, quite possibly, too unfair on the people who have expertise.

  3. says

    Marcus, to say the least.

    Blf, I’ve read Christie’s statement, and I don’t buy it. They’ve managed to make sure that qualified experts cannot examine the painting, and given the amount of money they’ve just pocketed, they have over 400 million reasons to engage in a dubious exercise here.

    There’s also solid reason to doubt its provenance, but there won’t be any investigation there, either.

  4. says

    I’d imagine that a glass orb of that size would have been quite hard to procure so a little fudging would have been in order.

  5. blf says

    Lofty, And, as the excerpt in @2 implies, Da Vinci’s notebooks were full of optically-correct drawings (whether or not any involved orbs is not-said). The excerpted article also points out there is a possibly-related engraving which does have an optically-correct orb. As both Caine and myself have indicated, Christe’s is rubbishing that and other doubts with questionable claims and actions.

  6. Desert Son, OM says

    Sooooooooo many questions. So many questions.

    If it does turn out inauthentic . . . how does the buyer feel about that? Did the buyer just get screwed? Was the buyer in on it and this is an artful (har har) form of money laundering? If it does turn out to be either inauthentic, or a fraudulent sale, what responsibility does Christie’s bear (if any)? What would that do to Christie’s reputation? Is Christie’s increasingly (or perhaps long been) the kind of institution that exists solely as a brokerage house for the ludicrously wealthy anyway, so would that actually be a boon?

    The high-end art world kind of breaks my heart. I once asked a friend who works in art conservation/restoration about art theft, because I don’t understand it. Sure, I get the thief part that actually takes it from a museum: That’s for cold, hard cash. But the part that follows is what I don’t get. Someone out there—who commissioned the theft or bought the piece on the black market—now has a stolen work of art. Can they enjoy it? If they throw a cocktail party and hang it on the wall to show off, isn’t there a risk that a party attendee might ooh and aah and then leave and make a phone call? Do they have to store it away in some locked chamber like the eponymous Picture of Dorian Gray?

    Whereas with the artwork in a museum, it’s available for the public to see. Many great museums even have days where they don’t charge admission, making available collections for even the poorest person to enjoy, if they so choose (and assuming other obstacles—like geography—are not in place). I don’t presume to propose museums don’t have their controversies, because of course they do. But it seems much more equitable—and in the spirit of what art does for us as humans—that the piece remains visible to the maximum potential number of those interested.

    But the art thief doesn’t just steal a painting. They steal the opportunity to interact with art, and they steal that from millions of people.

    My friend said it came down to ego: A variation on winning by dying with the most toys. So utterly pointless.

    Still learning,


  7. says

    What do they get out of it? “I have something no one else does, and I have the power to obtain it, and I have the power to do anything with it I want.”

  8. Desert Son, OM says


    “I have something no one else does, and I have the power to obtain it, and I have the power to do anything with it I want.”

    Then I guess my follow-up question is: Does that kind of exhibition of power need an audience? Is it sufficiently powerful if no one else sees it? And is there a paradox in that power, in that revealing that power potentially weakens, because of the threat of someone contacting authorities (granted, it may be in another country, with different laws, etc.)?

    Still learning,


  9. says

    No, I don’t think it does need an audience. Depends on the person, I suppose. I could see someone like the reclusive Mercer doing something like dropping 400 mil for a painting, which if authentic, belongs in a museum. I could see him with an illicit work. The rich are different, they operate by different rules.

    I have no particular reason to think they don’t ‘share’ such stuff with others of their kind. *shrug* Their lives don’t impact with reality much; they have the ability and power to shape their realities.

  10. Desert Son, OM says


    The rich are different, they operate by different rules . . . Their lives don’t impact with reality much; they have the ability and power to shape their realities.

    I think this is probably the part I’m having a hard time wrapping my brain around. And, if anything, it makes it more sad . . . and not a little creepy.

    Thanks for the edification.

    Still learning,


  11. blf says

    Another story, ‘Lost’ masterpiece by Spanish artist found hanging in Welsh castle:

    Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s 17th-century portrait had long been thought to be a copy until an art expert visited Penrhyn Castle

    The 17th-century portrait of an austere-looking Spanish writer had hung in Penrhyn Castle for nearly 150 years, unvisited by art experts and assumed by the National Trust, which owns the castle, to be of no great value.

    That was until a recent visit by Benito Navarrete Prieto, a distinguished art scholar who made the journey from Seville to north Wales on a hunch that a painting assumed to be a copy might just be the real thing. Now Prieto has established that the artwork was indeed a lost masterpiece by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, one of Spain’s great painters.

    […] The discovery of a Murillo in Penrhyn Castle, near Bangor in north Wales, is […] a major event for European art: there are barely a dozen known portraits by the artist and those few that do exist are worth millions.

    “It is an absolute masterpiece,” Prieto said. “Magnetic.”

    Based on the picture at the link, I agree.

    Murillo is admired for his ability to bring out the character of his sitters. The rediscovered portrait depicts Don Diego Ortiz de Zúñiga, who wrote a history of Seville. Dressed in black with the insignia of the Order of Santiago, he is set within a stone cartouche supported by two cherubs. […]

    The painting is currently be at the Frick Collection in New York until February, as a last-minute (literally!) addition to an exhibition on the artiste.

  12. Desert Son, OM says

    blf at #14:

    Great story! Thanks for posting that! I find these art mysteries fascinating!

    Still learning,


  13. says

    I have been thinking about that painting, and looking at it off and on, and I don’t think it’s a Da Vinci. It’s too muddy. The hand and sleeve (partially) might have been, maybe. But the rest, eh. It’s not worth $400m that’s for sure.

  14. says

    Marcus, that was my thought when I wrote the first comment. Part of it might be a da Vinci, but the rest of it isn’t. The more I’ve looked at it, my thinking is the top of the head and face might well be the master’s, there’s a similar sense in the face to other portraits; but for whatever reason, it was never finished, and an amateur finished. I doubt this would be ‘school of da Vinci’, because I’d expect them to be better.

  15. says

    As for the rich are different stuff, I recently mentioned a book I read, haven’t blogged about it yet. Oliver Pötzsch has a series of Medieval mysteries which I enjoy greatly. His main characters are the Kuisl family of executioners. The author is descended from the Kuisl executioners. Many of the tools of the trade, which had been handed down through the family for hundreds of years ended up in the Schongau museum. In 1970, the extremely old executioner’s sword was stolen from the museum, and it has never been recovered.

    As you can imagine, this would not be something you could just sell; what do you want to bet it’s in the hands of some rich asshole somewhere?

  16. Desert Son, OM says


    In 1970, the extremely old executioner’s sword was stolen from the museum, and it has never been recovered.

    As you can imagine, this would not be something you could just sell; what do you want to bet it’s in the hands of some rich asshole somewhere?

    Yep, c.f. yet more artifact madness.

    (And, that’s another one that’s begging for a fictional mystery treatment à la Arturo Pérez-Reverte.)

    Still learning,


  17. busterggi says

    I guess the Hobby Lobby folks will have to wait until the next time to get it for their museum.

Leave a Reply