The Salvator Mundi appeared at the National Gallery’s 2011-12 show Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, to very little fuss. So how did its sale become such an enormous media event?
It did have an impact at the time of the exhibition, and in fact some of us had known about the picture for four or five years and managed to keep quiet about it. It was scheduled to be shown in the London National Gallery show and it attracted a lot of attention, but of course it was in the context of an exhibition in which entrance tickets were selling for as much as Bruce Springsteen tickets on the black market. The Salvator was part of that but it wasn’t the focus. It then became a focus with the very messy sale to the ‘king of the freeports’, Yves Bouvier, and his selling it on – or flipping it as they say in the trade – to Dmitry Rybolovlev, and then the law case which is still rumbling on; a new one’s just been started. Then it all escalated with the sale at Christie’s for effectively USD 450 000,000 – it was just extraordinary.
Was its attribution disputed at the time of the exhibition?
Not particularly – those who had seen it were convinced that Leonardo had been deeply involved with it. One or two people thought that perhaps the senior studio assistants had done some of the work, which is not impossible. The great Leonardo scholar Carlo Pedretti, who has just died recently, went on the old pre-restoration photograph and hadn’t seen it – and still when he died he hadn’t seen it. He did not accept it. But I think for what is a terrifically difficult attribution – anything coming up claiming to be by Leonardo is setting the bar as high as it could be set – given that, the general acceptance was quite considerable.
Is authorship principally a matter of importance for the market?
It’s incredibly important to locate any historical work of art, whether it’s a medieval anonymous sculpture or a Leonardo, in the right place otherwise we’re not looking at it in a fully informed way. Seeing is a malleable business, and how we see something is greatly influenced by what we know about it, what we think it is and the circumstances of viewing it, and so on. So it is important and if we’re taking Leonardo, who of course is one of the most revered figures in cultural history, if we have something in his oeuvre which is wrong, it’s grossly misleading: it’s like having a choral ensemble where someone is singing very out of tune. It provides a very serious distortion and for the historian, getting things right – and we get plenty of things wrong after all – but getting things right is an imperative, it’s a kind of ethical thing if we wish to understand the past properly.