Fingers crossed: Salvator Mundi unveiling postponed (but hopefully not cancelled)

“The Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi announces the postponement of the unveiling of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi,” said the tweet on Monday 3 September. “More details will be announced soon.”

The big reveal for the world’s most expensive painting – $450 million at Christie’s in November 2017 – had been scheduled for 18 September. As yet no new date has been trailed.

So what’s going on here? As befits a somewhat enigmatic painting, there are many theories doing the rounds. So we thought we’d add to the pile.

Maybe someone thought it would make more of a splash to unveil on 11 November, the anniversary of Louvre Abu Dhabi’s opening.

Or maybe someone thought it would add more lustre to the UAE’s regional eminence to go with 2 December, UAE National Day.

Perhaps someone thought the painting’s ownership should be clarified once and for all with suitable proof. The speculation that Abu Dhabi is just acting as a proxy for an unnamed Saudi prince keeps popping up in the Western press, usually attributed to unnamed “Western diplomats” or “Informed sources in the art world”. This has been categorically denied, of course, not least by the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi, which told us explicitly that it was the owner of the painting. But maybe there’s an invoice we can all see?

Or does the back-story need a bit more meat? There are massive gaps in the painting’s history, but new research by the 17th-century specialists Jeremy Wood and Margaret Dalivalle plausibly fills one of the gaps – how the painting made its way to England and into the Royal collection. A forthcoming book snappily titled Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi and the Collecting of Leonardo in the Stuart Courts is to be co-authored by Dalivalle with the US art dealer Robert Simon and Leonardo expert Martin Kemp; maybe something from that research will add to our understanding.

Or maybe someone has come up with evidence that it is actually by Leonardo. We ran through some of the issues in our story a couple of months ago; but if the painting is any good, does it matter much who painted it? Apparently it does, not least because all Leonardo paintings are rare – fewer than 20 are known to be in existence. Even since the sale was announced, there’s been a background susurrus of whispers about the artist being one of Leonardo’s ‘followers’ or studio assistants rather than the great man himself.

The critique is led by Matthew Landrus, an art historian and Leonardo expert from Wolfson College, Oxford. He has claimed that not much of the painting was actually completed by Leonardo himself – between 5 and 20 percent according to a quote in the Guardian, 20 to 30 percent according to a CNN interview. In his view, the “primary painter” was Leonardo’s assistant, Bernardino Luini.

Other art experts have expressed their doubts, too. An equally meaty collection of the knowledgeable are ranged against them – among those in favour of attribution to Leonardo are Luke Syson, head of research at the National Gallery in London; Keith Christiansen, chair of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Martin Kemp, emeritus professor of the history of art at the University of Oxford (and a co-author of the Leonardo-did-it Collecting of Leonardo in the Stuart Courts); and Vincent Delieuvin, ‎curator of 16th century Italian painting at the Musée du Louvre and a co-curator of next year’s Paris exhibition at which the Salvator Mundi was/is due to star.

So – could there be a definitive conclusion about the painting’s authorship, one way or the other? It would almost be a shame if some incontrovertible facts were to get in the way of what is undeniably a good story …

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