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Oxford Scholar Says Most of $450M ‘Salvator Mundi’ Painted by Leonardo’s Assistant

An art historian and leading Leonardo expert has cast doubt on the painting’s attribution

Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi (detail), c.1500, oil on walnut, 66 x 45 cm. Courtesy: Christie’s, London / New York

Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi (detail), c.1500, oil on walnut, 66 x 45 cm. Courtesy: Christie’s, London / New York

Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi (detail), c.1500, oil on walnut, 66 x 45 cm. Courtesy: Christie’s, London / New York

A leading art historian and Leonardo scholar, Matthew Landrus – a research fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford – has cast doubt on the attribution of the painting Salvator Mundi to Leonardo da Vinci. The artwork, which features Jesus holding a crystal orb, went for a record-breaking USD$450 million at Christie’s, New York last November. It was sold as ‘one of fewer than 20 known paintings by Leonardo.’

But Landrus disputes the attribution. ‘This is a Luini painting,’ Landrus told The Guardian, referring to the artist’s talented studio assistant Bernardino Luini. ‘By looking at the various versions of Leonardo’s students’s works, once can see that Luini paints just like that work you see in the Salvator Mundi.’

Landrus told the newspaper that the painting was 5-20% by Leonardo, with Luini the ‘primary painter.’ The academic said that it might be considered ‘a Leonardo studio’ painting. The gold tracery and drapery, and modelling of the face in the Salvator Mundi, Landrus claims, bear remarkable stylistic similarities with Luini’s Christ among the Doctors (1515–30). Landrus told the newspaper that Leonardo’s own contribution might be in the ‘sfumato technique, the subtle gradations of shading that avoid perceptible contours or dramatic shifts in tonal values.’

The identity of the painting’s buyer has been the source of much speculation. A Wall Street Journal report initially claimed that the Saudi Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Farhan Al Saud had bought the work on behalf of the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Saudi authorities insisted instead that Prince Bader was actually acting on behalf of the Louvre Abu Dhabi museum in the UAE.

Some even suggested that the record-breaking bid was the result of an accidental bidding war – that representatives for the Saudi Crown Prince and UAE ruler Mohammed Bin Zayed both competed to bid for the artwork, thinking that they were each competing with Qatar. On realizing the truth, one report suggested, the Saudi crown prince exchanged the Leonardo for a yacht with Mohammed Bin Zayed. The work will go on show at the Louvre Abu Dhabi in September.

Don’t miss Rahel Aima analyzing Saudi Arabia’s recent soft power push. Mohammed bin Salman’s recent US tour involved hobnobbing with Oprah and Dwayne Johnson (the Rock): ‘The millennial prince wants to modernize Saudi Arabia and the media can’t get enough.

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