Salvator Mundi, the most expensive painting in the world, has a fascinating yet murky history: is it worth $450 million? Its initial price tag was 49 British pounds and we are debating whether it is an original Leonardo or one of many similar but less valuable paintings created in the 16th century. If you like our content please become a patron to receive our premium episodes, and all of our public episodes ad-free as well.
One of many renaissance era portraits of Christ holding a celestial bauble while making the sign of the cross surfaced in a New Orleans auction house in 2005, only to be sold later for almost half a billion dollars. If its chain of ownership is true, it began in the private collection of Louis XII of France, saw the execution of Charles I, and was centuries later sold from the estate of Sir Francis Cook to Warren and Minnie Kuntz, furniture dealers from New Orleans, for 49 British pounds in 1958. Three dealers from New York bought it on a hunch from the auction of the Kuntz estate for $1175, and turned it over to Diane and Mario Modestini, experts in painting restoration. 1
Diane decided after extensive work on the painting that it was from the hand of Leonardo himself. From there the painting took on a life of its own, and each step along its journey involved the exchange of tens to hundreds of millions of dollars. 2
Sketchy Swiss shipping magnate Yves Bouvier bought it for $83 million, and immediately sold it to Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev for $127 million. When Dmitry found out about Yves' markup (and when his ex wife hit him with a 4.8 billion dollar divorce judgment...), in a rage he put the painting up for auction at Christie's, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman paid $450 million for it. When MBS tried to get the Louvre in Paris to assist in the painting's perception of authenticity by exhibiting it next to the Mona Lisa the French curators refused, so it now reportedly lives on his yacht. 3
The painting propelled British National Gallery curator Luke Syson to a glamorous career at the Met in New York and the Cambridge University museum, whose previous director is now the director of the royal family's private art collection. It also embroiled Yves Bouvier into a string of lawsuits against Rybolovlev spanning major cities around the globe, and according to the French tabloids also brought Bouvier into an arrangement with a group of escorts who were previously involved in a scandal involving French football stars, who solicited them when they were underage. 4
All of this is a deep look into the shady underworld of the high end art market, and how billionaires and their handlers carry rare antiquities on their yachts and jets to hide from banks, governments, ex-wives with divorce settlements, and tax collectors.
1. Report: How a Louisiana Family Unknowingly Owned $450M da Vinci Painting for Nearly 50 Years. The Advocate. September 2018. ⇤
2. Sarah Cascone and Eileen Kinsella. 7 Unbelievable and Contentious Takeaways From a New Documentary About ‘Salvator Mundi,’ the $450 Million ‘Lost Leonardo’. Artnet. August 2021. ⇤
4. Danielle Granger. What is the Real Story Behind Yves Bouvier’s Ties to Zahia Dehar?. The Frisky. March 2020. ⇤
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