A long-lost painting by Leonardo da Vinci will go up for auction in New York City on Wednesday, when it is expected to fetch well over $100 million.
But a dozen years ago, the same painting — albeit obscured by time and the brush strokes of later artists — went up for sale at an auction house in Louisiana and sold for only $10,000.
Not much is known about how “Salvator Mundi,” which depicts Jesus holding a clear orb and raising his right hand in blessing, came to be in Louisiana. At the time it was thought to have been painted by a member of Leonardo’s school.
But New York art collector Robert Simon purchased it through an auction house somewhere in Louisiana in 2005 and set about cleaning off layers of paint that had been added over five centuries. By 2011, it was authenticated as the highly sought painting, whose title translates to “Savior of the World.”
“It’s a major find,” said Walter Isaacson, the New Orleans native who recently published a biography of the renowned Italian Renaissance painter and inventor. “We only have about 15 fully finished paintings that Leonardo did.”
The painting has been in the news several times in recent years, as a legal dispute erupted last year over the painting’s sale from a Swiss businessman to a Russian billionaire for $127 million.
Its potential sale this Wednesday made news in the art world because Christie’s Auction House included it in an auction of contemporary art, despite its having been painted by one of the Old Masters.
Simon, who sold the painting along with his partners in 2013, said Monday he is barred from discussing the purchase by a confidentiality agreement, leaving its time in Louisiana a mystery, at least publicly.
Legal documents and news stories refer to the sale only as having been conducted at a “regional auction house” in Louisiana. Calls to New Orleans auction houses yielded no clues.
New Orleans Auction checked its records a few months ago when news stories surfaced and found nothing, a spokeswoman said.
Isaacson said he doesn’t know anything about the painting’s time in Louisiana beyond those reports, though he said it’s not surprising that an unsigned Renaissance painting could become lost.
Isaacson wrote about the authentication of the "Salvator Mundi" in his book, "Leonardo da Vinci."
According to Christie’s, the painting was known to be in the royal collection of Kings Charles I and II of England but had been overpainted severely by 1660 and was thought to be the work of one of Leonardo's followers.
“Salvator Mundi” disappeared from 1763 until 1900, when it became part of a private collection. In 1958, it was consigned to an auction and sold for 45 pounds, and it didn’t re-emerge until 2005, when it was purchased in Louisiana.
It was not authenticated as a work by Leonardo until 2011; two years later, the group led by Simon sold it to the Swiss businessman, Yves Bouvier.
Bouvier bought it for $80 million and immediately sold it to Dmitry Rybolovlev for $127.5 million, sparking a legal battle between the two men that grew to involve Sotheby’s and the previous sellers, who claimed they were shortchanged.