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Restoring the Lost Da Vinci

The hidden story behind the most expensive work of art to ever sell at auction.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (ca.1500) made headlines around the world late last year when it sold for an astounding $450,312,500 at Christie’s in New York on November 15. Tendered in an evening sale of postwar and contemporary art, the “timeless treasure” more than quadrupled its unpublished estimate of $100 million after a 20-minute bidding war to easily surpass previous record for a work of art sold at auction, set by Pablo Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) (1955), which sold for $179.4 million at the same house in May of 2015.

Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World) has been hailed as one of the great rediscoveries of the 21st-century—coming to light in 2005, having been obscured by a heavy-handed restoration and eventual mis-attribution. The work, thought to have been commissioned by King Louis XII of France and his wife, Anne of Brittany, is one of fewer than 20 known paintings by the artist to have survived to this day and the only one remaining in private hands.

Salvator Mundi came to the auction block with the comfortable backing of a third-party financial guarantee and a healthy helping of controversy. The painting was consigned to Christie’s by Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, who acquired it in 2014 for a reported $127.5 million from Yves Bouvier, his longtime art advisor and president of Natural Le Coultre, which operates Geneva Freeport. Only months before, it seems, Bouvier had bought the work for a seemingly cheap $80 million from a consortium of dealers (and investors) led by Robert Simon, through a private sale brokered by Sotheby’s. It was Simon who, in 2005, spotted the work in a regional auction in Louisiana, snapping it up sans attribution for less than $10,000. Over the course of six years, the painting was painstakingly cleaned and restored by Diana Modestini. Throughout the process, the oil on panel was intensely scrutinized by Leonardo experts, who accepted it as authentic in 2011.

The painting was acquired by Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan Al Saud, who purchased it on behalf of the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture & Tourism. Salvator Mundi is now in the collection of the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

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