Leonardo’s Saviour of the World rediscovered in New York
The work was assumed lost until it turned up in an American private collection
After New York conservator Dianne Dwyer Modestini had removed the varnish and overpaint, the picture’s quality and style convinced the scholars. A technical examination also supported the attribution. Pentimenti, such as a change in the thumb of the hand of Christ raised in blessing (detail), were further evidence.
The discovery of Salvator Mundi (Saviour of the World), 1498-1506, was publicised in July. Known only from an etching by Hollar in 1650, it was assumed lost until it turned up in an American private collection, disguised by crude retouching and layers of discoloured varnish. At least 23 other versions of the composition are known, but this is believed to be the original.
After New York conservator Dianne Dwyer Modestini had removed the varnish and overpaint, the picture’s quality and style convinced the scholars. A technical examination also supported the attribution. Pentimenti, such as a change in the thumb of the hand of Christ raised in blessing, were further evidence.
The attribution is fully accepted by Syson and National Gallery director Nicholas Penny. “We felt that it would be of great interest to include it in the exhibition as a new discovery,” a gallery spokesman told us.
The roll call of specialists who accept the attribution includes Carmen Bambach, Andrea Bayer, Keith Christiansen and Everett Fahy (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), David Alan Brown (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC), Mina Gregori (University of Florence), Maria Teresa Fiorio (Raccolta Vinciana, Milan), Pietro Marani (Politecnico, Milan), David Ekserdjian (University of Leicester) and Martin Kemp (University of Oxford). Some have dated it to the end of Leonardo’s period in Milan (1498-99) and others to Florence (1500-06). So far, Italian specialist Carlo Pedretti is the only scholar to have questioned the attribution.
Where has the painting been for five centuries—and how did it emerge? By the 17th century, it belonged to Charles I. It went to the Duke of Buckingham in 1688 and was sold in 1763 by his descendants as a Leonardo. The painting disappeared and surfaced in 1900, attributed to Bernardino Luini, when it was bought by collector Sir Francis Cook.
Tancred Borenius, in his 1913 catalogue of the Cook collection, described it as a “free copy after Boltraffio”, although Sir Herbert Cook added a dissenting note, ascribing it to a “contemporary painter of Leonardo’s School”. Sir Herbert was an Italian Renaissance specialist, so it is curious that he never subjected the picture to further scrutiny.
Sir Herbert’s son sold the painting at Sotheby’s in 1958, as a copy after Boltraffio. It went for £45, going to a buyer named Kuntz, and soon afterwards was acquired by an American family, who sold the work in 2005.
No details are being disclosed, but it seems probable that it was a private sale, possibly to New York dealer Alexander Parish. The main art historical research on the work has been undertaken by a fellow New York private dealer, Robert Simon. Both have an interest in the picture, which is owned by an entity known as R.W. Chandler.
In accepting the Salvator Mundi on loan, the National Gallery had to be satisfied that the picture was not about to appear on the market, since this is prohibited under its guidelines.
Simon told us that the owners “recognise the responsibility we have as caretakers”. He said that the painting is “not on the market” and that he hopes it will remain “publicly accessible” in a museum. Yale University Press will publish a detailed account of the work later this year.