The painting on wood panel, Christ as Salvator Mundi, circa 1499, was included in the wildly popular 2011 exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan” at London’s National Gallery. It is now in the hands of a group of unidentified dealers.
Jill Bernstein, the museum’s chief communications officer, confirmed to A.i.A., “We have brought Leonardo da Vinci’s recently re-discovered masterpiece Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World) to the DMA. We are actively exploring the possibility of acquiring it.” Measuring about 26 by 18 inches, the painting shows Christ holding a glass orb in his left hand, with his right hand raised in benediction.
The Dallas Museum of Art’s new director Maxwell Anderson has earned a reputation for being an innovative, vocal and sometimes controversial figure. His book The Quality Instinct: Seeing Art Through a Museum Director’s Eye was published this year by the American Association of Museums press. He helmed museums including New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art (1998–2003) and the Indianapolis Museum of Art (2006–2012) before moving to Dallas in January. In 2004, his influential essay “Metrics of Success in Art Museums” argued against an attendance-chasing, entertainment-based model.
But Anderson (who, via the museum’s communications department, declined to comment for this article) evidently sees the appeal of “a destination painting”—a phrase recently applied to Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1895), which brought $119.9 million at a Sotheby’s auction in May—one that would in itself draw crowds to a museum.
The work is priced in the range of $200 million, according to three sources with knowledge of the situation. Such a high-ticket item would likely require pooled donations from a number of museum benefactors.
At present, only one painting by Leonardo is on public view in the United States: Ginevra de’ Benci (1474/78), also on panel, is in the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C.
In dollar amounts, the acquisition would far outstrip recent high-profile museum purchases of old masters, including the 2009 purchase by the Kimbell Art Museum, in Fort Worth, of Michelangelo’s painting The Torment of Saint Anthony (ca. 1487-88). Contested but thought to be among the master’s earliest works, it is said to have been purchased for over $6 million, according to the New York Times. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2004 purchased a Madonna and Child by Duccio for an estimated $45 million. That work’s authenticity has also been challenged.
“Those acquisitions are quite different, though,” New York old master dealer Richard Feigen told A.i.A. “The Duccio was in fine condition and probably the last remaining work by the artist in private hands. I had no problem with [the Met] paying that much for that picture. They had to buy it.
“As far as the Michelangelo,” Feigen says, “it was an extraordinary youthful work by this great master. I had no problem on the grounds of quality with [the Kimbell] buying that for $6 million. It was sure to bring crowds and it was a quite beautiful work of art.”
For his part, Feigen, who saw Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi in London, does not find it to be as commanding a work, and observes that it would be a lonely old master in a European paintings department in Dallas with strengths in the 18th through the 20th centuries.
“To me it is not a gripping masterpiece,” he says. “For me Dallas would make a more serious splash by going after several lesser priced paintings in very fine condition. It would be cause for chatter in the museum world if Dallas bought eight or 10 really serious old master paintings, a field where they had not previously ventured.”
Salvator Mundi has been “very considerably overpainted,” according to the catalogue from the National Gallery’s exhibition, and subsequently “aggressively over-cleaned,” in addition to, at some point, suffering a split in the wood panel, resulting in some paint losses.
These condition issues, along with the high price, may be the reason the sellers have found no takers after offering the painting to other museums, which three sources who spoke to A.i.A. said it had been. The price and condition are also said to have led to considerable debate among those connected to the Dallas Museum.
“With an acquisition of that magnitude there’s always some divided opinion,” said a Dallas-based source with knowledge of the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Its price and condition have led to some doubts.”
Christ as Salvator Mundi has had a long, tough road. By the 17th century, the work was in the collection of Charles I of England. The Duke of Buckingham took possession of the painting in 1688; his descendants sold it in 1763, after which its whereabouts are unknown until 1900, when it was purchased by collector Sir Francis Cook and attributed to Bernardino Luini. The picture was sold at Sotheby’s in 1958 for £45 (about $90 today) to a buyer named Kuntz. It then passed from him to an American family, who sold it in 2005 to its current owners.