The Last Leonardo by Ben Lewis
There isn’t any doubt about which painting is the most expensive in the world, said Michael Prodger in The Sunday Times. It’s Salvator Mundi. In 2017, the portrait of Christ ascribed to Leonardo da Vinci fetched a “record-obliterating” $450m at auction. Everything else about the painting, however, is shrouded in mystery. In his “forensically detailed and gripping” book, Ben Lewis tracks its murky history – a story that takes in Renaissance Italy, the courts of Louis XII and Charles I, and ends among today’s sheikhs and oligarchs: people who think nothing of splashing millions on an artwork. Through it all, Lewis considers a fundamental question: was the Salvator actually the work of Leonardo? He’s in no doubt it emanated from the master’s studio, but he doesn’t think it’s a “signature” work. As Lewis sees it, a “potpourri of interests – financial, political and even psychological – combined to turn a workshop painting into a Leonardo”.
The evidence for his verdict is compelling, said David Sanderson in The Times. From the 1490s, Leonardo’s paintings were extensively documented – but there is no reference to a Salvator (thought to have been painted around 1500). And would Leonardo really have chosen to paint his Christ on a walnut panel with a “gnarled, ticking time bomb” of a knot? A key contention of those claiming the painting is genuine is that it was owned by Charles I, whose inventory referred to a “Peece [picture] of Christ done by Leonard”. But the portrait, Lewis points out, doesn’t have Charles’s collection stamp on its back, while in a Moscow gallery there’s another Salvator Mundi, attributed to Giampietrino, that does.
After languishing in obscurity for centuries, the badly damaged painting was “discovered” in 2005 by two American art dealers, said Charles Nicholl in The Guardian. On a “whim”, they bought it from an obscure New Orleans auction house, for $1,175. Having been “painstakingly restored”, it was then exhibited, as a genuine Leonardo, at London’s National Gallery in 2011. Since then, even as most experts have come to doubt its authenticity, the Salvator has rocketed in value, passing from a “Swiss middleman” to a Russian oligarch to its current owner (believed to be the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman). Even today, the sense of mystery continues: last autumn, its promised unveiling at its “new home”, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, was abruptly cancelled, with no explanation given. Narrated with “great gusto”, The Last Leonardo is a compelling study of a “fairy-tale frog turned into a prince of paintings”.