Why Da Vinci's Last Privately Owned Painting Probably Won't End Up In A Museum

Oct 18, 2017
Originally published on October 18, 2017 4:48 pm
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The only painting by Leonardo da Vinci known to be in private hands is going on the market. Titled "Salvator Mundi" or "Savior Of The World," it depicts Christ holding the world in his left hand and offering a blessing with his right. For centuries, scholars thought it was an inferior copy of a lost original. Then an extensive restoration revealed the hand of the master. And for the next month, it will be on view before it goes to auction. Rick Karr reports.

RICK KARR, BYLINE: Leonardo da Vinci wasn't a very prolific painter. And he worked 500 years ago, so only around 20 of his paintings still exist as far as we know, says Alan Wintermute, a specialist in old master paintings at Christie's.

ALAN WINTERMUTE: A third of them are unfinished. So there are really only about 12 absolutely full-scale, finished paintings by Leonardo.

KARR: So when Wintermute learned that "Salvator Mundi" was the real deal and that he'd help bring it to auction, he says the news left him...

WINTERMUTE: Stunned.

KARR: The painting had been part of the British Royal Collection until King James II sold it to the husband of one of his mistresses in the 1680s. It was auctioned off 80 years later and disappeared. It didn't resurface until a British collector bought it in 1900. It was so badly restored and overpainted that scholars thought it was a poor copy by one of da Vinci's students except, Wintermute says, for a couple of striking details.

WINTERMUTE: That hand is pretty good, or that bit of drapery looks, you know, much better than the rest of it.

KARR: Starting in the late 2000s, layers of overpainting and varnish were painstakingly removed, revealing details in the depiction of Christ with shoulder-length light brown hair in ringlets, wearing a square-necked blue tunic, gazing at the viewer with his right hand raised in benediction as his left hand holds a polished crystal orb that represents the world. Wintermute says Leonardo's hand and genius are evident in the meticulous, almost microscopic detail da Vinci painted into the orb's tiny imperfections or inclusions.

WINTERMUTE: Every single one is different. Every single one follows the shape of the orb. There's a mark for the inclusion. There's a shadow on one side of it. There is a highlight on the other. No one but a sort of crazy, scientific perfectionist like Leonardo would ever dream of doing that.

KARR: It's in the depiction of Christ's raised right hand that biographer Walter Isaacson sees Leonardo's genius. The sale of the painting was timed to coincide with the release of his new book on the artist. Isaacson says da Vinci used a painting technique that rendered most of the image in soft focus except for that right hand.

WALTER ISAACSON: It's much sharper. Why - because it makes it feel like it's coming out at you. He was studying optics at the time. He knew how that worked.

KARR: Isaacson says "Salvator Mundi" has many of the same uncanny qualities as the "Mona Lisa" - the androgynous figure, the ambiguous expression, the evidence of da Vinci's scientific research. When the painting comes up for auction next month, it's expected to fetch well over a hundred million dollars - too much for a museum to afford on its own. But Issacson hopes that the only known Leonardo in a private collection becomes the last Leonardo in a private collection.

ISAACSON: I would hope that a wealthy person along with a museum might buy it and then put it on permanent loan in a museum and eventually it will go to that museum. Certainly you want to make sure the public sees this.

KARR: For the next few weeks, the public can see Leonardo da Vinci's "Salvator Mundi." It went on display today at Christie's in San Francisco. Next week, it travels to London before finishing its tour in New York at the end of the month. For NPR News, I'm Rick Karr in New York.

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