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The Authenticity of Old Masters is Often an Article of Faith

Switzerland’s Finanz Und Wirtschaft newspaper writes a provocative commentary about the lingering questions of provenance hanging over Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi. The piece touches on the links between the controversial art dealer who once bought and sold the painting, Yves Bouvier, and the notorious art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi.

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In November 2017, the art world was staggered when the Salvator Mundi, one of the few remaining works by da Vinci known to be in existence, sold at Christie’s New York for an eye-popping $450 million. The sale made the painting the most expensive artwork ever – by some margin.

Three weeks later, the New York Times broke the news that the buyer was Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan Al Saud, a little known member of the Saudi Royal family.

We now know that the work will be displayed in the new Abu Dhabi Louvre, a joint venture with the eponymous Parisian institution. The purchase of the Salvator Mundi is clearly a colossal investment for the Prince and the Abu Dhabi Museum and one that they will be hoping is able to earn a return in the form of increased visitor numbers.

Despite the huge price paid for the painting, its authenticity remains hotly debated among experts. In fact, many believe the question of its ultimate provenance may never be resolved definitively.

For one thing, the new owners are unlikely to commission any further research on the issue that might cast even more doubt on the value of their prized acquisition. And that means that the argument as to the Salvator Mundi’s authenticity will continue to rage among art aficionados.

Theories of provenance range from a suggestion that the work was painted partly by Leonardo and partly by his students; to the extreme thesis that it is simply a deliberate fake from a much more recent period. Some sceptics charge that this is why it was included in Christie’s contemporary auction!

The problem is that, despite all scientific and artistic assessments, authenticity in the case of an old master of this kind can never be determined one hundred percent.

The work, which probably originated around 1500, first appeared in the collection of England’s King Charles I around 1650, and that move could have served the purposes of a clever counterfeiter. Likewise, a counterfeiter might have used old design drawings and engravings of a lost painting as a template.

At any rate, it is nothing new for counterfeiters to paint and resurrect a well-known but lost painting. The old catalog and inventory entries add credibility to the "rediscovery legend" of the new image. The counterfeiter did not have to fear image comparisons in that collection catalogs and possession lists prior to the invention of photography around 1840 usually contained only brief text descriptions without illustrations or even measures of dimensions.

The Beltracchi Connection

The recent history of counterfeiting shows one very prominent example of the practice of repainting and resurrecting a painting that is poorly cataloged and considered lost.

The German master counterfeiter Wolfgang Beltracchi, did this with his recreation of Heinrich Campendonk's “Rotes Bild mit Pferden” from 1914.

This is where the comparisons with the Salvator Mundi get interesting. Although there is no direct connection between Beltracchi and Leonardo's work, there is an indirect one, through the international Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier. He flipped the Salvator Mundi in 2013 for $127 million to Russian collector Dmitry Rybolovlev, having acquired it only days earlier for just $80 million, and having mispresented the purchase price to Rybolovlev.

Bouvier has been connected to many art deals involving Beltracchi though was never convicted in those cases. Knowing how Beltracchi worked it I possible to envisage a range of scenarios – none of them good for the new owners!

In the end then, experts on the issue of provenance are never an absolute guarantee. Authenticity is an article of faith.

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