Long-Lost Da Vinci Painting Fetches Historic $450 Million, Obliterating Records

A long-lost Leonardo da Vinci painting, which depicts Jesus Christ, sold at auction for more than $450 million on Nov. 15, 2017.
A long-lost Leonardo da Vinci painting, which depicts Jesus Christ, sold at auction for more than $450 million on Nov. 15, 2017. (Image credit: Leonardo da Vinci)

A painting by Leonardo da Vinci that preserves the artist's own handprints sold for more than $450 million at auction tonight (Nov. 15), "obliterating the previous world record for the most expensive work of art at auction," according to Christie's Auction House.

Christie's presented the painting, which depicts Jesus Christ holding up one hand in blessing while cradling a crystal orb in the other, at a sale in New York this evening. The auction house guaranteed the painting at $100 million, meaning it would pay the difference if bidders didn't reach that level; last time the painting sold, in 2014, it went for $127.5 million. Tonight, the bidding lasted about 20 minutes and boiled down to two bidders, with the numbers already soaring past the guaranteed amount.

"Gasps were heard in the saleroom, which gave way to applause when Christie's co-chairman Alex Rotter made the winning bid for a client on the phone," according to a statement from Christie's. The final sale: $450,312,500 (including buyer's premium).

At one time, though, the very same painting went for a song — in 1958, it sold for a mere 45 British pounds, which is the equivalent of 990.50 pounds ($1,304) today. That's because it wasn't until the late 2000s that anyone realized the painting was a da Vinci. [Leonardo Da Vinci's 10 Best Ideas]

Long-lost masterwork

Art experts now estimate that the painting — titled "Salvator Mundi," or "Savior of the World" — was made around 1500. But between the mid-1600s and 2005, this piece of da Vinci's work was lost. The painting now known to be his was thought to be a copy by one of his students, and it was heavily damaged by crude attempts at conservation.

"Salvator Mundi" by Leonardo da Vinci. (Image credit: Leonardo da Vinci)

According to Christie's, the reconstructed history of the painting goes something like this: da Vinci painted it around 1500, leaving behind a few sketches by his hand that tie him to the imagery. At some point, Charles I of England, a great art collector, acquired the piece. It probably hung in his wife's chambers. Charles I was executed in 1649 after a civil war between the Royalists and the English and Scottish parliaments, which were seeking to curb the monarchy's power. The artwork was sold in October 1951 to a mason named John Stone. [11 Hidden Secrets in Famous Works of Art]

Stone kept the painting until 1660, when Charles I's son Charles II returned from exile to retake the English throne. (The intervening years had been a short-lived experiment in republican government run by Oliver Cromwell.) Stone then returned the da Vinci to the new king. Its path then becomes murky. It probably stayed at the Palace of Whitehall in London until the late 1700s, passing from Charles II's possession to his brother James II, when that monarch took the throne, according to Christie's. No one knows what happened next. The painting disappears from the historical record until 1900, when it was sold not as a da Vinci but as a work of Bernardino Luini, one of the great master's students.


The painting bounced from hand to hand, including in the 1958 auction, when it sold for not much more than what people pay for an iPhone X today. It wasn't until after 2005, when the painting appeared in an auction of a U.S. estate, that anyone realized what it really was.

After that sale, in 2007, conservator Dianne Dwyer Modestini, of New York University's Institute of Fine Arts, launched a project to restore the painting, removing clumsy dollops of paint that people had put on the wood panel to disguise chips and restoring ugly attempts to patch a crack in the wood. According to Christie's, while the background of the painting has almost entirely sloughed away, the rendering of Christ's hands, hair and clothing are well-preserved, and tiny inclusions and specks painted into the crystal orb are still visible.

Once the ugly layers of overpainting and resins were removed, Modestini realized the painting might not be a copy of da Vinci's work after all, according to a 2011 article by ArtNews. Experts from around the world examined it, and soon everyone agreed: The painting was the real thing. In 2011, the painting was unveiled as a real da Vinci at an exhibit at The National Gallery in London.

Christ's skin tone is blended with a technique called sfumato, in which the artist presses the heel of his hand into the paint to blur it. Infrared imaging of the painting revealed that these handprints are still pressed into the paint, particularly on the left side of the forehead.

The painting was sold for $80 million in 2013 to Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier, who then sold it for $127.5 million the following year to Russian investor Dmitry Rybolovlev. The markup led to a viscious legal battle between Rybolovlev and Bouvier. Rybolovlev is now being investigated in Monaco over whether he improperly used his political clout against Bouvier in that dispute, The Guardian recently reported. Rybolovlev's name has also surfaced in the ongoing investigation about potential links between Donald Trump's presidential campaign and Russia, according to The Guardian, as Rybolovlev once bought a Florida property from Trump for $95 million.

The previous record-holder for the priciest "old master" painting was "Massacre of the Innocents" by Peter Paul Rubens, which sold for $76.7 million in 2002, according to Christie's. The previous record-holder for the most expensive da Vinci was his "Horse and Rider," which sold for $11,481,865 at Christie's in 2001.

Original article on Live Science

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.