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Last Da Vinci Painting In Private Hands Will Be Auctioned Next Month

Christie's unveiled Leonardo da Vinci's <em>Salvator Mundi</em> at Christie's New York on Tuesday in New York City.
Ilya S. Savenok
Getty Images for Christie's Auction House
Christie's unveiled Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi at Christie's New York on Tuesday in New York City.

The only known Leonardo da Vinci painting in private hands is heading to auction.

The portrait of Jesus Christ, Salvator Mundi, was only recently confirmed to be by Leonardo. This piece was thought to be a copy of a destroyed original. And it's still not clear where the painting was, exactly, for more than a century.

Christie's says that this is "one of fewer than 20 surviving paintings accepted as from the artist's own hand." It is expected to sell for some $100 million, according to Reuters and The Associated Press, when it is auctioned at Christie's in New York on Nov. 15.

It's not clear who is selling the mysterious painting — according to the AP, it is identified only as a "private European collection."

The work shows Jesus Christ bathed in light, with his right hand raised in a benediction and his left holding a translucent orb. His face is framed in brown curls and he is wearing bright blue robes with gold details.

The auction house says Salvator Mundi was definitely in the collection of King Charles I of England, based on records collected in 1650 after his execution a year earlier. It was sold and then eventually returned to his son King Charles II.

From 1763 to 1900, the painting was missing, Christie's says. During this time, its "authorship by Leonardo, origins and illustrious royal history [were] entirely forgotten." At some unknown point, the work was covered in additional layers of paint. Then, it was sold at auction in 1958 for the bargain price of 45 pounds, having been mistaken for a copy of the Renaissance master's work.

According to Christie's, the work disappeared after the 1958 auction and was purchased "from an American estate" in 2005.

Six years of painstaking research and restoration revealed that it was not a copy at all. In a statement, Dianne Dwyer Modestini, who worked on restoring the painting, described the moment when she realized it was likely genuine: "My hands were shaking. ... I went home and didn't know if I was crazy."

Christie's lists the ways that scholars determined that Leonardo painted the work:

"The reasons for the unusually uniform scholarly consensus that the painting is an autograph work by Leonardo are several, including the ... relationship of the painting to the two autograph preparatory drawings in Windsor Castle; its correspondence to the composition of the 'Salvator Mundi' documented in Wenceslaus Hollar's etching of 1650; and its manifest superiority to the more than 20 known painted versions of the composition. Furthermore, the extraordinary quality of the picture — notably the blessing hand and the hair — and its close adherence in style to Leonardo's known paintings from circa 1500, solidified this consensus."

Some experts think this work was done after 1500 in Florence, where Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa. Others put it at about a decade earlier.

The auction house stresses the importance of this work: "Salvator Mundi is a painting of the most iconic figure in the world by the most important artist of all time," said Loic Gouzer, the chairman of post-war and contemporary art at Christie's in New York.

NPR contributor Alva Noë described the experience of seeing Salvator Mundi in person, at a 2011 exhibition in the U.K.'s National Gallery:

"Jesus is God, the savior and creator of the world, but he is also fully a man. What this portrait shows us is not just this man, but man's essence. A human being uses hands to make, to create, to act, to show and to perceive."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.
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