Salvator Mundi: a Bone of Contention – Prominent Art Restorer Speaks Out

BY VENIZELOS G. GAVRILAKIS | Senior Expert Artworks Conservator & Restorer

Salvator Mundi is a remarkable painting by Leonardo da Vinci, known for its record-breaking sale of $450 million. This renowned artwork possesses a long and intriguing history, with some experts dating its creation back to the late 1490s, while others argue it was completed after 1500. There is a theory suggesting that it may have been commissioned for King Louis XII of France and his consort, Anne of Brittany, possibly soon after the conquests of Milan and Genoa. However, it is important to note that not all historians accept this theory.


By delving into the painting’s history from its inception to the present day, we can observe the impact of the art market, pricing, and the various interventions it has undergone. It is essential to distinguish between the historical context of the artwork and its depicted subject and symbolism. It is not uncommon for individuals to misconstrue the intended symbolism and subject matter of paintings. Let us bear in mind that the original artist is the one who possesses the deepest understanding of the message conveyed through their artwork.


In the year 1625, a French princess named Henrietta Maria married King Charles I of England, a renowned art collector. Rumors swirled that she might have brought a remarkable painting with her to England, a painting that would captivate the world for centuries to come. Fast forward to 1650, when Wenceslaus Hollar, a celebrated printmaker, created a print based on an earlier drawing he had made of this elusive painting. The drawing itself found its place in the royal collection’s inventory, shedding light on its existence.

Etching by Wenceslaus Hollar, 1650 | Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library | University of Toronto

In 1651, John Stone returned the painting to King Charles II of England along with other artworks after the Restoration. It is believed that the painting had been inherited by Charles II’s brother. The year 1660 marked a significant turning point as Charles II regained the throne. An act of Parliament enabled the reclamation of his late father’s possessions. In accordance with this decree, Stone returned the painting to the Crown, adding another chapter to its enigmatic story. By 1666, an inventory of King Charles II’s collection at Whitehall listed the painting as item 311 in the king’s closet. Referred to as ‘Leonard de Vince,’ the artwork was among the select masterpieces treasured by the monarch. Throughout the reign of James II, Charles II’s successor from 1685 to the late 18th century, the painting likely remained at Whitehall. Subsequently, it passed into the hands of Catherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester and James II’s mistress. However, the painting mysteriously disappeared until the late 18th century, leaving its fate shrouded in uncertainty.


The painting in question was none other than Salvator Mundi, a creation by the legendary Leonardo da Vinci. While the painting’s existence was known for a long time, it had long been presumed destroyed. However, its composition endured, evident in two preparatory drawings by Leonardo and over 20 painted copies by his students and followers.

From 1763 until 1900, the masterpiece vanished from sight, evading even the most ardent art enthusiasts. But in the year 1900, it triumphantly reemerged from the shadows. Sir Charles Robinson acquired the painting, believing it to be the work of Bernardino Luini, a follower of Leonardo. The Cook Collection at Doughty House in Richmond became its new home. Over the course of its disappearance, the painting had undergone marouflaging and cradling, with extensive overpainting on Christ’s face and hair.

Initial Condition of Salvator Mundi | Cook Collection

In 1913, Herbert Cook, a renowned collector, acquired the painting from Luini. However, he described it as a “Free copy after Boltraffio,” unaware of its true origins and value. Years later, in 1958, the painting took an unexpected turn. Sotheby’s auction house offered it for sale, fetching a mere 45 pounds. The lucky buyers were Warren and Minnie Kuntz, a couple from New Orleans. Following Mrs. Kuntz’s passing, she bequeathed her estate, including the painting, to her nephew, Basil Clovis Hendry. Unbeknownst to them, the true nature of the artwork remained concealed. In a preliminary appraisal of Mr. Hendry’s estate after his death in 2004, the painting was described as a “Continental School (19th century) Portrait of the Head of Christ,” valuing it at a mere $750.


It wasn’t until 2005 that the fate of Salvator Mundi took another extraordinary twist. The painting found its way to the St. Charles Gallery, a small auction house in New Orleans, following Mr. Hendry’s demise. It was at this moment that the new owner, Mr. Robert Simon, recognized the potential significance of the artwork and entrusted it to the capable hands of Mrs. Dianne Modestini. Mrs. Modestini, a Clinical Professor for the Kress Program in Paintings Conservation at the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU, embarked on the task of meticulously restoring the painting, fully aware that she was working on a work of immense historical and artistic value.

Initial condition of Salvator Mundi | Photo by Dianne Dwyer Modestini

Research & Restoration

Since then, a new chapter unfolds in the story of this famous painting. Mrs. Modestini embarked on an extensive research and restoration process, employing scientific analysis, examinations, and thorough photographic documentation. The initial condition of the painting, before it reached the hands of the restorer, was in a deplorable state. Dating back to the 17th century, the painting had suffered from severe interventions and numerous overpaintings that obscured parts of its original layers. Additionally, there were signs of aggressive cleaning, particularly in the facial area, which had damaged portions of Leonardo’s authentic drawing.

The investigation of the painting’s authenticity continued throughout the restoration process, with the involvement of various specialists and experts, including renowned institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other museums and galleries in the United States and Europe. The painting underwent multiple examinations and assessments, with its transportation back and forth between these institutions.


Mrs. Modestini has prepared a comprehensive report covering the history, conservation, and restoration of the painting, which I have studied in detail. Numerous experts on Leonardo da Vinci have examined the painting and most of them have arrived at the consensus regarding its authenticity. However, due to the severe overcleaning that has occurred throughout the centuries, we lack a clear image in the facial area. The aggressive cleaning has resulted in the destruction of delicate color layers and parts of the original sketch, which cannot be replicated. Consequently, the face area does not provide a clear and definitive result. This particular circumstance can create confusion among historians and art experts regarding its authenticity, leading to doubts. I am aware of this fact because, as a senior expert art conservator and restorer, I have encountered similar issues with other artworks and have discussed them with numerous historians and experts.

Salvator Mundi, the painting attributed to Leonardo, was in a very poor condition with extensive overpainting when restoration began in 2005 under Mrs. Modestini’s guidance. In her report, she describes the cleaning and restoration process, stating that she removed recent varnish and repaints within a few hours. The head, in particular, had suffered damage, and the background had been repainted brown. Initially, she wasn’t impressed with the painting because she had no knowledge of Leonardo’s work from that period or the existence of a lost composition of a Salvator Mundi.

Salvator Mundi, fragment | Photo by Dianne Dwyer Modestini
Salvator Mundi, fragment | Photo by Dianne Dwyer Modestini

While Mrs. Modestini cleaned most of the overpaints, she left some of them intact. She notes in her report that there are no original remnants of a mustache or beard on the upper lip and lower jaw of the Salvator Mundi, which are badly damaged. In the area of the chin, which has also suffered from abrasion, she chose not to remove some old, darkened repaints that may be contemporary with the green repainting of the background. She also observes that the damage around the top of the head, where only a few passages of later hair survive, has the shape of a halo, suggesting that one might have been removed when the background was scraped. Mrs. Modestini mentions that this halo-shaped damage above the head is also present in the Ganay copy.

It is worth noting that depictions of Jesus often portray him with a beard and a small mustache, both in Western Catholic-style icons and in Eastern Orthodox icons. Historical descriptions of the mature Christ have consistently depicted him with wavy, curled hair of a bluish and bright sheen flowing over his shoulders, parted in the middle. His abundant beard matches the color of his hair, divided at the chin. There are also visual representations, such as an etching by Wenceslaus Hollar from 1650 in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto, which depicts Jesus with a beard and a small mustache.

Mrs. Modestini mentions this issue in her report, stating that most versions and variants of the Salvator Mundi are bearded, although the copy in Naples, likely created by one of Leonardo’s close followers, has a tentative beard consisting of small, pale curls on the lower part of the chin, visible only under strong light. She suggests that the addition of a beard and halo to Leonardo’s somewhat androgynous image might have been an attempt to make it more conventionally pious and masculine when the original black background was repainted with thick green verdigris. Mrs. Modestini also cites an enigmatic note by Leonardo in the Codex Atlanticus, where he wrote about being put in prison when he made a Christ Child and the fear of facing even worse consequences if he were to depict Christ as an adult.

Mundi vs Market

The restoration of Salvator Mundi was completed in 2011, and it re-entered the art market. In 2013, Yves Bouvier purchased the painting from Sotheby’s Private Sales for $75 million. In 2016, Bouvier sold the painting to Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev for $127.5 million. In 2017, Rybolovlev sold the painting through Christie’s for a record-breaking $450 million, including fees. The New York Times journalist David Kirkpatrick revealed that the new buyer was Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud, acting for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. The painting’s whereabouts became a subject of speculation, with initial reports indicating it would be exhibited at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, but the loan was later canceled.

In December 2019, a secret booklet titled “Léonard de Vinci: Le Salvator Mundi” was prepared by the Louvre, providing detailed scientific examinations and concluding with the attribution of the work to Leonardo da Vinci. The booklet was not widely distributed, but a publication by Hazan editions authored by Vincent Delieuvin, Myriam Eveno, and Elisabeth Ravaud from the Louvre’s laboratory, C2RMF, supported the attribution to Leonardo. The Louvre’s director, Jean-luc Martinez, stated in the preface that the museum’s examination confirmed the attribution and marked a major event for the study of Leonardo and the history of the museum.


While some experts, such as Martin Kemp, have stood by the attribution of Salvator Mundi to Leonardo, others have expressed concerns about its condition and authorship, suggesting that it may have been predominantly created by Leonardo’s workshop and heavily restored. Despite the controversies, some experts remain confident in its authenticity and express the desire to study the painting further.

Where does the new owner keep the painting? That remains a mystery, but it is rumored that it is in his private yacht, the “Serene,” in a special room. There are also reports that he is building a dedicated museum for the painting. However, Salvator Mundi has once again disappeared, leaving its whereabouts unknown until a new announcement is made.

“Salvator Mundi” by Leonardo da Vinci

Salvator Mundi has been a worldwide bone of contention, with many questions surrounding its authenticity. Despite extensive analyses and examinations by experts, including those from the Louvre Museum, who confirmed its authenticity, there are still many who dispute it. Numerous articles, documentaries, and videos have been produced worldwide, but for various reasons, some people refuse to accept its authenticity.


The art market operates like a stock exchange, where sellers aim to increase prices while buyers attempt to diminish the value of artworks. This perpetual “fight” unfortunately often results in the artworks themselves becoming victims. The story of Salvator Mundi is long, spanning from its creation by the great master Leonardo da Vinci to the present day. Numerous interventions, mostly carried out by improper individuals, such as brutal over-paint cleanings, have destroyed a significant portion of the painting’s authentic elements. Despite this, the treasure still exists. And the story will continue.

I do have one final thought… Amidst all this drama, have we ever taken a moment to wonder who Salvator Mundi truly was? Have we honestly looked and understood what is depicted in this masterpiece, or do we merely focus on the ever-increasing price tags it commands…

Venizelos G. Gavrilakis © Venis Studios

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