Unravelling the Provenance Behind Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi

Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi

As the masterpiece comes to market for a reported $150 Million what are the legalities behind its export?
Leonardo da Vinci was an enigmatic figure during his lifetime, and remains shrouded in mystery hundreds of years after his death.  A notorious procrastinator, Leonardo was infamous for not finishing paintings.  Apparently, he was too easily distracted by many of his other– engineering, inventing, anatomy – to stay focussed on a single commission for very long.  Many of this abandoned works were completed by other artists.  Only fifteen of his paintings survive to this day.  Many are believed to be lost or destroyed.  However, we know that other paintings existed, as they have been documented by chroniclers and scholars alike.
The most recent long lost painting to be attributed to Leonardo’s brush has become hot property in the art world.  In Taschen’s 2007 edition of Frank Zöllner’s definitive book, ‘Leonardo da Vinci: The Complete Paintings and Drawings’, an etching of the Salvator Mundi (Saviour of the World) by Wenceslaus Hollar appears as a passing reference on page 250 under the heading, “Further paintings by Leonardo mentioned in the sources”.  Believed to be one of several copies of the original, the image depicts a forward facing portrait of Christ, his right hand raised to confer a blessing and his left hand holding a crystal orb, a symbol of the earth.
The original painting on which Hollar’s engraving is based, surfaced in 2011 at the National Gallery’s sold out exhibition, “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan,” in 2011/2012.  The Salvator Mundi is currently on loan to the Dallas Museum of Art, which recently announced its intention to acquire it as a “destination piece”, to attract more tourists to the gallery.  The Dallas Museum has now embarked on a fund raising drive to buy the painting – with an estimated price tag of £120 million, the Salvator Mundi does not come cheap.

 So, just how did a work that has eluded so many for centuries finally come to light?  Before being bought in 2005 by a consortium of American businessmen, the painting had been ascribed to Giovan Antonio Boltraffio, one of Leonardo’s pupils.  This in itself was significant enough to confer value on it.  However, it was only when the new owners brought the painting to the US art dealer, Robert Simon, that things began to unravel.
Simon enlisted the help of conservator, Dianne Modestini, to restore the work.  At first, the pair did not allow themselves the luxury of hoping that the painting might be a genuine Leonardo.  They did not want any suspicion of attribution to cloud their objectivity.  Rather, the truth revealed itself slowly as Modestini painstakingly removed the layers of varnish and over-paint from previous sub-optimal restoration attempts, while Simon set about verifying the painting’s origins by comparing it to da Vinci’s other paintings and preparatory drawings.
Apart from the techniques used, which bear many hallmarks of Leonardo’s trademark style (such as the curls of Christ’s hair and the use of sfumato), one clue stood shoulders above the rest, which suggested that this painting was not merely a copy.  Infrared photographs of the work showed that the painter changed his mind about the position of the blessing hand and the stole that Jesus is wearing.  Experimenting with composition is not only characteristic of Leonardo’s working method, but is also something that a mere copyist would not do. Beginning in 2007, the panel was presented to a select group of connoisseurs during various phases of its restoration.  In 2011, the painting was unanimously authenticated by a panel of leading Leonardo experts.
In this context, the proposed acquisition of the Salvator Mundi by the Dallas Museum is interesting for many reasons, not only because Texas is not readily thought of as a premier art destination.  What’s more, if the purchase is successful, the Salvator Mundi will be only the second Leonardo painting to be available on public view in the Americas.  The other is the Ginevra de’ Benci which was bought in 1967 by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C, for US$5 million, a record at the time, but a fraction of what the Dallas Museum of Art would be required to fork out.
More intriguingly, however, there appear to be long gaps in the documented history of the painting, during which it is not known who owned it.   According to independent researcher, Hasan Niyazi, we know that the painting passed hands several times:
1506-1513: Leonardo painted the Salvator Mundi for King Louis XII of France, where he spent his last days.
1649: The painting was noted in an inventory of the royal collection of King Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland.  Art historian and Cook Collection archivist, John Somerville, believes that Charles I’s widow, Henrietta Maria, may have brought it from the French court.
1650: Henrietta commissioned Wenceslaus Hollar to make an etching of the piece.  The engraving identifies the work as being a copy of the Leonardo original.
1650-1660?: Between the reign of Charles I and Charles II, the painting was sold.  It was returned to Royal Collection in 1660, before passing to the Duke of Buckingham, an ancestor of the present British Prime Minister’s wife, Samantha Cameron.
1660-1783: Niyazi indicates that the painting remained in the Duke of Buckingham’s collection until Buckingham House (now Buckingham Palace) sold it to King Charles II in 1783.  Art historian, Dr Margaret Dalivalle (DPhil History of Art at Oxford) believes that the painting may have been stolen in the interim, on the eve of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 amid a smash-and-grab in Whitehall Palace. Dr. Dalivalle’s research will be published in Robert Simon (ed.) The Lost Christ of Leonardo (Yale University Press, forthcoming 2012).
1783-1900: The painting’s location during this time is currently undocumented in the available sources.
1900: British millionaire Sir Francis Cook purchased the Salvator Mundi in 1900, and housed it in his famous Cook Collection in Richmond, London.  At the time of writing this article, it is not known who the seller was or if the seller had legal title to sell it.  Cook appears to have been unaware of Leonardo’s authorship.
1958: Cook’s descendants sold the painting to an unnamed private collector in the United States for £45 (they mistakenly believed that Boltraffio had painted it). The buyer was recorded as a Mr Kuntz, thought to be a false name.
2005: An undisclosed consortium of American businessmen purchased the painting.
The press reports give conflicting accounts of whether the Salvator Mundi’s current owners will actually put the painting on the market.  If they do, any sale is likely to be accompanied by a flurry of publicity. Besides the naysayers who dispute its attribution to Leonardo, significant legal questions remain about the ownership of the piece, particularly as the painting passed between so many people.  Is it possible that the estate of one of its previous owners would attempt to lay claim to the painting, or stop the sale from proceeding?
According to Canadian art lawyer, Aaron Milred, the internationalisation of art purchases and sales has led to a significant expansion in the market for lost and stolen art.  The trend towards globalisation has made it easier for paintings that have gone missing in one country to be sold to buyers in another.  Depending on how an artwork switched hands (such as through abandonment, loss or theft), and the amount of time that has lapsed since the work was transferred, it may be possible for the original owner to claim back the work, leaving the buyer unprotected. This was the case at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts with a disputed Raphael (attributed) painting. The outcome saw ‘Portrait of a Young Woman’ returned to Italy decades later, leaving the museum out of pocket. The return of dubious art and artefacts has been prevalent with other major US institutions, including the Metropolitan in New York and the Getty in Los Angeles. This raises the question, will any museum want to touch this masterpiece?
Although the minutiae of the law differ from country to country, if an owner abandons property, then the person who finds it may take ownership of it.  However, if property has been lost or mislaid, then the finder may take possession, but may not necessarily ownership.  In the case of theft, ownership can never be transferred to the purchaser, except if a statute of limitations applies.
A statute of limitations sets a fixed time frame within which a claim for a civil wrong can be made, after which the owner may not reclaim the property.  The reason for imposing these restrictions is to balance the rights of the rightful owner and an innocent buyer. Statutes of limitations exist in various jurisdictions.  All impose different limits – ranging between two to three years (as in South Africa) to six years (such as in the UK under the Limitations Act of 1980).  In the case of theft, courts in the UK, the US and Canada have often relied on the applicable law of limitation to allow innocent purchasers to keep stolen artworks free of the claim of the original owner.  This is particularly where the buyer is unaware of the larceny and the rightful owner takes too long to assert a claim after becoming aware of it.
Of course, astute purchasers and reputable galleries should always take steps to verify the provenance of an artwork.  Digital registers such as the London Stolen Arts Database (LSAD) and authentication providers such as the International Foundation for Art Reseach (IFAR) undoubtedly facilitate this.  However, tracing the rightful owner may be easier said than done if the records are incomplete.

Given the excessive time periods that have lapsed in between the stages during which different collectors have laid claim to the Salvator Mundi and the patchy archive, it may be difficult if not impossible for a third party to claim ownership at this late stage.  However, with a such hefty price tag, the stakes are high.  This makes the much anticipated sale of the painting to the Dallas Museum the next space to watch.

Words: Carla Raffinetti © ArtLyst 2012