Leonardo da Vinci expert declines to back Salvator Mundi as his painting
Dr Carmen Bambach believes the polymath likely only did small retouchings to the work.
The Salvator Mundi on display at Christie’s auction rooms in London. Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP
One of the world’s leading experts on Leonardo da Vinci has criticised Christie’s auction house for wrongly suggesting in its cataloguing of the Salvator Mundi that she was among scholars who had attributed the picture to the Renaissance master.
Dr Carmen Bambach, who is a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, told the Guardian: “That is not representative of my opinion.”
In 2008, she had been among scholars invited by the National Gallery in London to view the painting. In 2017, Christie’s New York sold it for a record-breaking $450m (£356m), having listed her in its cataloguing as among scholars whose “study and examination of the painting … resulted in a broad consensus that the Salvator Mundi was painted by Leonardo”.
But, in her forthcoming four-volume study of the polymath – a vast project spanning more than 1m words and 1,500 images – Bambach attributes most of the picture to Leonardo’s assistant, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, with only “small retouchings” by the master himself.
The picture was included in the National Gallery’s 2011 Leonardo exhibition, and Christie’s described it as the artistic rediscovery of the 21st century, while its whereabouts have remained a mystery since last year’s unveiling at the Abu Dhabi Louvre was cancelled.
Bambach revealed her surprise at being contacted by the National Galleryearlier this month: “I got an email request, whether I would agree to have my name released among the scholars who saw the Salvator Mundi in 2008.
“I have not wanted to answer because I do not want to be listed among people that said ‘yes’ because I wasn’t really asked what I thought about the Salvator Mundi at the time. If my name is added to that list, it will be a tacit statement that I agree with the attribution to Leonardo. I do not.”
Salvator Mundi, an ethereal portrait of Jesus Christ. Photograph: Handout/Reuters
Michael Daley, director of ArtWatch UK, the restoration watchdog, also doubts the attribution to Leonardo. He described the email to Bambach as “a disturbing development”. He said: “It suggests either that the National Gallery is still campaigning to demonstrate expert support on behalf of the attribution, at a time when the Louvre is finding it hard to get loans for its big Leonardo show, or that the National Gallery’s present board is disturbed and seeking clarifications on the … nature of the gallery’s earlier involvements.”
He added: “The National Gallery should never have shown a painting that was on the market and being shown to museums – and which no museum would buy at that time.”
Bambach’s attribution is based on numerous factors, including the picture’s original condition, having seen it “completely stripped” while it was undergoing restoration in 2007. “I know how damaged the painting is.”
She also challenges claims that the picture was painted around 1500 and that it might have been in the collection of Charles I: “It cannot be documented completely until the middle of the 19th century.”
Acknowledging the sale price, she said: “In my opinion, it was not a good investment.”
Her study, titled Leonardo da Vinci Rediscovered, will be published on 25 June by Yale University Press.
The Queen’s Gallery in London has just opened a major exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing, showing more than 200 of the artist’s greatest drawings in the Royal Collection.
Bambach’s numerous discoveries include a small drapery study in the Royal Collection, where it was described as from Leonardo’s workshop. Aided by scientific studies, she has now linked it to a Leonardo painting in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
Declining to comment on its email to Bambach or her attribution, the National Gallery said: “[We make] careful consideration before including any loan in an exhibition … [We weigh] up the advantage in including it – the benefit to the public in seeing the work, the advantage to the argument and scholarship of the exhibition as a whole.
“On that occasion, we felt that it would be of great interest to include Salvator Mundi in [the exhibition] Leonardo da Vinci: Painter of the Court of Milan as a new discovery as it was an important opportunity to test a new attribution by direct comparison with works universally accepted as Leonardo’s.”
A Christie’s spokeswoman said: “The attribution to Leonardo was established almost 10 years prior to the sale by a panel of a dozen scholars and was reconfirmed at the time of sale in 2017. While we recognise that this painting is a subject of enormous public opinion, no new discussion or speculation since the 2017 sale at Christie’s has caused us to revisit its position.”