It's Salvator Mundi versus the Art world as the chattering classes are calling into question a recently sold Leonardo da Vinci. But "so called" experts say that it's genuine.
Even before Leonardo da Vinci's 'Salvator Mundi' painting went to auction on Wednesday evening at Christie's in New york city, cynics from the art community were savaging its credibility.
Various consultants were gossiping darkly, both online and in the auction previews.
A day prior to the sale, art critic Jerry Saltz wrote that though he's "no art no art historian or any kind of expert in old masters," just "one look at this painting tells me it’s no Leonardo."
And that was prior to the news that the artwork in question wiped out every previous auction record, selling, with a premium fee, for $450 million.
Shortly after the hammer went down, the New York Times released an article by the art critic Jason Farago where - after also keeping in mind that he's "not the man to affirm or reject its attribution" - he stated that the painting is "a proficient but not especially distinguished religious picture from turn-of-the-16th-century Lombardy, put through a wringer of restorations."
“All of the most relevant people believe it’s by Leonardo, so the rather extensive criticism that goes ‘I don’t know anything about old masters, but I don’t think it’s by Leonardo’ shouldn’t ever have gone to print,” said old master's dealer Charles Beddington.
“Yes, it’s a picture that needed to be extensively restored. But the fact that it’s unanimously accepted as a Leonardo shows it’s in good enough condition that there weren’t questions of authenticity.”
After talking to several noticeable old masters dealers - a community whose participants aren't typically known for holding their tongues - the real concern regarding the legitimacy of 'Salvator Mundi' appears to be a question of education:
“All old masters have had work done to them,” claims art dealer Rafael Valls, whose London gallery is positioned near Christie's.
“They’ve all been scrubbed and cleaned, but when you think about a particular painting and say, ‘Oh, it’s by Titian, but a quarter of it was recreated by other restorers,’ it still is what it is.”
Those in the art world that disregard its credibility, dealers explain, are just shifting criteria that are used to evaluate contemporary art onto old masters.
The equivalent of contrasting the specifications of a new Honda versus a Ferrari from 1965. They're both cars, yet that's where the similarities stop.
“To a certain extent, you have to put condition aside,” says art dealer Johnny van Haeften. “Of course it’s not perfect, and of course it’s not mint. But can you get another one?”
THE BACKSTORY OF SALVATOR MUNDI
The art dealers employed noted that restorer Dianne Dwyer Modestini (formerly of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art) to get rid of much of the dirt and varnish, whereupon the painting was efficiently a shell of its previous self. Substantial parts of the composition were missing entirely.
“I’ve seen the picture stripped,” claims Van Haeften, that is friends with one of the artwork's previous proprietors. “There are damages to the panel, and it has certainly had a checkered career.”
A PAINTING BRUISED AND BATTERED
The Da Vinci could have been harmed in any variety of ways.
First, there's the effect of transportation to think about - it needed to make its way from Leonardo's workshop to England on horseback, or in a cart, and after that by boat.
Then take into consideration the environment of wherever it hung for the following centuries: There might have been a leaky roof, a damp room, or a great smoky fireplace close by.
Even in the 18th century, collectors knew that their paintings got filthy if they weren't careful, so "normally, every time paintings changed hands," dealer Beddington states, "they got cleaned quite harshly."
This Leonardo, he states, "obviously changed hands quite a bit."
Whenever a painting was rubbed, “when you clean something like that orb, which is delicately painted, you end up taking something away from it,” Beddington proceeds.
“And that’s normal.”
When Modestini restored 'Salvator Mundi' it was anticipated that she would repaint what had been lost - both via her cleaning and those of previous owners - in a manner that was “keeping in character with what is left,” Beddington explained.
A QUESTION OF ORIGINALITY
The concern for many old master collectors, then, is not whether a painting is "authentic," but to exactly what degree it's original. "For the vast majority of old masters, condition is of enormous importance," claims Van Haeften.
Many old masters have only marginal damages or restoration inflicted on it - "an awful lot of Canalettos are in a near-perfect state," claims art dealer Simon Dickinson .
However when it comes to considerably rarer artworks, "maybe in the case of a Michelangelo, Raphael, and Vermeer, you have to compromise on the condition," van Haeften says.
"Because there’s no other possibility of acquiring one."
“The market tolerance for a da Vinci is quite different than the tolerance for a Van Gogh, say,” explains Brooke Lampley, Sotheby’s fine art division chairman, in an interview on Bloomberg Surveillance.
“Because even though a Van Gogh is scarce, and someone will pay $81 million for a great one, there are still more to be had than da Vinci, for whom there are fewer than 20 paintings in the world."
"People have a much higher threshold for what over-painting or condition problems there could be in a painting.”
It was only natural, therefore, that prospective Leonardo collectors would be willing to to compromise on this fact greater than on others; they were unlikely to discover another opportunity like this one.
However the art buyer did not compromise as much as doubters wish to believe.
The main critiques - that it is too stiff, and that it does not resemble the 'Mona Lisa' - "are ridiculous," Beddington claims.
“The composition of Christ the Redeemer is always a stiff composition.” The fact that it has little similarities to the 'Mona Lisa', he proceeds, “is that it’s a completely different type of painting.”
MORE THAN AESTHETIC VALUE
The quality of the composition, nonetheless, is just one component of the painting's worth. “You’re buying much more than the painting, you’re buying its history,” says Dickinson.
“Who’s looked at it, who’s touched it: You’re selling a dream: that what you’re in front of, Leonardo was once in front of.”
The painting, consequently, is as much an artefact as it is an artwork, its reputation and background is equally as talismanic a pull as its aesthetic quality.
(Likewise, people do not crowd the 'Mona Lisa' in the Louvre everyday just because they're fans of art history).
“You have to accept it’s more an object than a work of art in a perfect state,” says Van Haeften.