Specialists were divided over the attribution of Salvator Mundi, a new book reveals
Courtesy of Christie's Images LTD 2017

The National Gallery is justifying its display of the controversial Salvator Mundi painting in its 2011-12 Leonardo exhibition, following critical comments in a new book by Ben Lewis. In The Last Leonardo, Lewis questions the attributional process and says that some specialists believe that it was partly painted by the masters assistants. He also points out that the National Gallerys presentation of it as a full Leonardo was used by Christies, when in 2017 the auction house sold the painting for $450m.

A National Gallery spokeswoman says that when considering any loan request, “it weighs 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”. With the Leonardo exhibition, the gallery felt it would be of great interest to include the newly discovered Salvator Mundi, “as it was an important opportunity to test a new attribution by direct comparison with works universally accepted as Leonardos”.

Although the Salvator Mundi had not been put up for sale in the run-up to the 2011 exhibition opening, the National Gallery must have been aware that it was very likely to come onto the market in the coming years.

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In Lewiss book, which will be published on Thursday and was serialised by The Times newspaper, he questions the procedure adopted by the National Gallery to determine the attribution. This was led by Luke Syson, the gallerys curator of pre-1600 Italian paintings, the head of research and the curator of the Leonardo exhibition.

Lewis reports that five leading Leonardo scholars were shown the painting in May 2008. In his book, he records the result: “The final score from the National Gallery meeting seems to have been two Yeses, one No, and two No Comments. There was some common ground between those present, to be sure—they agreed that Leonardo had added his brush to parts of the picture, notably the orb and its foreshortened hand, the golden embroidery and, above all, the blessing hand. And the majority agreed that the face had been so badly damaged that they could no longer tell who had painted it.”

If Lewis is correct, then the consensus was that only part of the painting was by the master, with the remainder presumably done by his assistants. Yet in Sysons National Gallery catalogue entry, the painting is unequivocally attributed to Leonardo and described as “an autograph work”. Exhibition curators are fully entitled to make their own judgements, but it is surprising that Sysons entry does not at least allude to the suggestion by other scholars that parts of the picture may have been painted by assistants, even if he went on to dismiss this idea.

Christies, in its catalogue for the 15 November 2017 auction, began by describing “the dramatic unveiling” of the Salvator Mundi in the National Gallery exhibition. The auction house then goes on to refer to the May 2008 gathering of specialists, which led to “a broad coRead More – Source