The Remarkable Story of da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi Painting and What it Teaches Us About Value

by | Jan 25, 2021

Salvator Mundi

In 1958 the painting Salvator Mundi sold for around $200. It resurfaced in 2005 when an art dealer bought it out of an estate sale in New Orleans for $10,000. In 2017 the Salvator Mundi sold for an astonishing $450 million. Why did the painting skyrocket in value as it did?

Leonardo da Vinci Paintings

Leonardo da Vinci is the archetype of the renaissance man: a polymath who was among the most diversely talented people to have ever lived. He was one of the greatest painters of all time but also was an anatomist, scientist, and inventor. If you have any interest in da Vinci and his life, I highly recommend his biography by Walter Isaacson.

Interestingly, even though Da Vinci was one of the greatest painters of all time, producing such famous works as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, he was not prolific. He only produced a few dozen paintings and a mere 20 of them survive to this day. As a result, each da Vinci painting is especially valuable due do to scarcity (more on that below).

The Salvator Mundi

It is thought that Leonardo painted the Salvator Mundi (which translates into “savior of the world”) around 1500 for Louis XII of France. Over the centuries it changed hands many times and was owed by Charles I and Charles II of England as well as James II.

When the painting was auctioned off for $200 in 1958 it was widely believed to have been painted by a pupil of da Vinci or by someone copying his style. After the 1958 sale the painting’s ownership trail went cold and resurfaced in an estate sale in 2005. Two NYC art dealers bought the painting thinking that with some restoration work it might be worth a decent sum of money as a great example of a classic renaissance oil painting done by someone imitating Da Vinci. According to one of the dealers, Robert Simon:

“I thought it was beautiful but battered, and greatly overpainted. In my wildest imagination I would never have thought it was a da Vinci . . . perhaps, if we were very very lucky, it would be attributable to one of his peers.”

The art dealers commissioned an art restorer from NYU to work on the painting. In stripping off the overpainting, da Vinci’s signature technique came to light as well as an important finding that the thumb of Christ’s hand had originally been painted straight and then the artist had gone back and overpainted a more curved thumb. This sort of discovery of an earlier draft in a painting (called a pentimento) is evidence that a painting is original because a copy wouldn’t have such an alteration.

After restoration, various art experts certified that the Salvator Mundi was in fact painted by Leonardo da Vinci and in 2013 the art agents sold it to a Swiss art dealer for $75 million who then sold it to a Russian billionaire for $127 million. The buyer in 2017 $450 million sale was anonymous but was later revealed to be Saudi prince Badr bin Abdullah. It has been speculated that he may have actually bought it on behalf of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Controversy surrounds the painting. Whether it is really a Leonardo is not firmly established in the eyes of some art experts. The restoration has also been criticized as having “over-restored” the painting and ruining its true elements. And the painting has yet to be put on display since it was purchased in 2017 which some interpret as signaling issues with either the provenance or restoration. Here’s an article that discusses some of the controveries.

What is Value?

The story of the Salvator Mundi provides insight into how we ascribe value to things and experiences. How much pleasure did the New Orleans owner whose estate sold the painting for $10,000 get from viewing it on his wall thinking it was just a generic oil painting? How would he have experienced the same painting differently if he had known that it was (probably) painted by one of the most famous and remarkable people to have ever lived? Is viewing the Salvator Mundi more enjoyable knowing that it one of only 20 Leonardo paintings than it would be if the painting was actually done by one of his students? It’s the same painting – why does knowing the artist change our experience of viewing it?

Listening and watching Lady Gaga belt out the National Anthem at the inauguration last week was an emotional experience for me (I felt sorry for J Lo having to follow her). Would I have enjoyed it as much if it was some unknown singer with equal talent? What amount of my enjoyment is knowing who Gaga is and her amazing backstory?

Why does knowing the price of a wine affect our enjoyment of it?

Why do scarce items generally have more value than plentiful ones? A good example is gold — while it does have some industrial uses, its main value is due to its scarcity. The fact that it is so valuable is kinda bonkers according to Warren Buffett: “gold gets dug out of the ground in Africa… Then we melt it down, dig another hole, bury it again and pay people to stand around guarding it. It has no utility. Anyone watching from Mars would be scratching their head.” Another example is Bitcoin — there are only 21 million possible Bitcoins — which limit is integral to Bitcoin having value.

I don’t have any solid answers to these musings. What I do think is important is to think about why certain things are valued as they are. Is it due to its intrinsic usefulness or some other psychological metric?

1 Comment

  1. This is one of my favorite topics to ponder. Similar to you, I have no hard answers. When watching the PBS program Antiques Roadshow, I like to play a game. I ask myself the question, “What would I pay for (insert item) if I came across it at a yard sale?” Very rarely do I ascribe a value in the range of the appraiser.


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