Back in the heady days of 2012, Max Anderson, the Dallas Museum of Art’s relatively new, swashbuckling director, was doing everything he could to raise the museum’s international reputation. He returned some art in the DMA’s collection to Turkey in hopes of playing a leading role in the repatriating of cultural artifacts around the world. He was working behind the scenes to secure a long-term loan of one of the largest collections of Islamic art in the world. He launched a digital initiative that turned a museum visit into something like a credit card rewards program, with visitors racking up points for seeing various works of art or participating in programs.
But the most daring move of all was the time Anderson tried to convince his board to drop $100 million on a single painting — Salvator Mundi, by Leonardo da Vinci. Paintings by da Vinci are rare; paintings by the Old Master on the open market are unheard of. To convince Dallas collectors to reach even deeper into their pockets than they are used to, Anderson brought the painting to Dallas, plonked it up on an easel, and invited donors to have a look. In the end, the donors passed. The painting was finally sold at a Christie’s auction to the Louvre Abu Dhabi for $450 million.
Did Dallas miss out on the art deal of the century?
If the museum had purchased the da Vinci, supporters of the transaction argued, it would have instantaneously transformed the museum’s stature. After all, there are only 15 da Vinci paintings on view around the world, most at the highest tier of museums, places like the Ufizzi, Louvre, Vatican museums, and Hermitage in St. Petersburg.
Well, as it turns out, the DMA probably dodged a bullet. Since the Louvre Abu Dhabi purchased Salvator Mundi, it has delayed its debut exhibition multiple times. The longer the museum delays, the more skeptics believe it is because the experts at the Louvre are beginning to understand that they spent $450 million on a fraud.
That’s right. Salvator Mundi may not actually be a painting by Leonardo da Vinci. Most likely it is a work that came out of his studio, but was completed by apprentices. Perhaps aspects of the painting were created by da Vinci. Perhaps elements were over-restored, eroding away aspects of the work that could be more directly tied to da Vinci. Regardless, if the painting is simply a touched-up apprentice project, and not an actual work by the Old Master, then its art historical import and value are negligible — certainly not worth either the $450 million the Louvre Abu Dhabi spent, or the philanthropic capital the DMA would have squandered on the thing.
Art experts are hashing about minuscule issues regarding restoration, pigmentation, and other forensic qualities to determine the validity of Salvator Mundi. But my favorite explanation of its inauthenticity comes from New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz. In this Vice News clip, Saltz argues that no one should have been fooled by the supposed da Vinci if they understood da Vinci’s work. A simple comparison of style and sensibility between the newly surfaced painting and the rest of da Vinci’s works reveals evidence hiding in plain sight that Salvator Mundi is not a da Vinci.
Well worth a watch: