Salvator Mundi and the Ongoing Problem of Art Authentication - Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal
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Salvator Mundi and the Ongoing Problem of Art Authentication

Salvator Mundi and the Ongoing Problem of Art Authentication

Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” sold for a record $450 million at a Christie’s auction in New York on Wednesday November 17, 2017.1 The walnut oil painting dates to c. 1500, and depicts Christ as Savior of the World.2 It is one of fewer than 20 paintings by the Renaissance master known to exist, and the only one in private possession.3 The sale price far exceeds the previous record, set by Kooning’s “Interchange,” which went for $300 million in 2015.4 The painting and its seller, Russian oligarch Dimitry Rybolovlev, have been embroiled in legal controversy and intrigue for years.

Scholars and art historians question whether the work can actually be considered one of da Vinci’s.5 The painting was once owned by King Charles I of England, but fell upon hard times during the 20th century, and sold for only $10,000 in 2005.6 Alternative provenance has been suggested, such as an artist working in da Vinci’s studio or even a talented imitator from contemporary times.7 Nevertheless, it appears that the majority of da Vinci experts, and even some skeptics, believe that da Vinci was truly the painting’s author.8 The resale value strongly suggests that the public agrees.

In 1496, Michelangelo sculpted a sleeping Cupid, which he then treated with acidic earth to increase its appeal to patrons who craved ancient works of art.9 A Cardinal who purchased the statue eventually learned of the fraud, but decided against pressing charges and actually allowed Michelangelo to keep his cut.10 But what to do in modern times when the stakes are high and you suspect that you’ve been the victim of art fraud? The “Salvator Mundi’s” seller, Dimitry Rybolovlev, appears to have answered by invoking a Machiavellian strategy against his former art dealer Yves Bouvier.11 Mr. Bouvier allegedly sold him 38 works of art, including “Salvator Mundi” and masterpieces by Picasso and Van Gogh, for $2 billion. 12 Mr. Rybolovlev became suspicious that he had been fooled after a New York Times article reported that “Salvator Mundi” had sold for $45 million less than Bouvier charged just one year earlier. 13 Rybolovlev responded by filing civil suits against Bouvier in Singapore and Monaco, as well as pursing criminal prosecution in France and Monaco for fraud, forgery and money laundering.14

Mr. Rybolovlev may have been overzealous in his pursuit of justice. Mr. Bouvier alleges that he was lured to Monaco for a business trip, where he was subsequently arrested and released on a bail of 10 million euro.15 The arrest resulted in a controversy when it was discovered that Mr. Rybolovlev had flown the principality’s director of judicial services to an opulent ski weekend immediately prior to Mr. Bouvier’s detention.16 The director left his post as a result of the scandal that followed.17 In addition, Mr. Rybolovlev now faces criminal invasion-of-privacy charges as an accomplice for illegally recording another party involved in the art transactions.18

Mr. Rybolovlev’s recent victory at the auction house will certainly damage his case in the courthouse, as the arguments in his complaints rely heavily on the price of “Salvator Mundi.”19 No matter what the outcome, the story of the “Salvator Mundi” is certain to captivate as the criminal and civil cases unfold.

  1. Hugo Miller & Stephanie Baker, Russian Billionaire’s Record Da Vinci Sale Could Complicate a Different Legal Battle, Bloomberg Pursuits: Collecting (Nov. 16, 2017), [].

  2. Richard Hartley-Parkinson, Leonardo Da Vinci portrait of Jesus Christ “Salvator Mundi” sells for $450,000,000, (Nov. 16, 2017) [].

  3. Id.

  4. Aaron Smith, Ken Griffin buys two paintings from David Geffen for $500 million, CNN Money (Feb. 19, 2016), [].

  5. “But in a forthcoming study, Leonardo da Vinci: the Biography, Walter Isaacson questions why an artistic genius, scientist, inventor, and engineer showed an ‘unusual lapse or unwillingness’ to link art and science in depicting the orb [in the painting].” Mr. Isaacson goes on to argue that da Vinci was “deep into his optics studies” at the time, and would not have depicted the globe as it appears in the painting. See Dalya Alberge, Mystery Over Christ’s Orb in $100m Leonardo da Vinci Painting, The Guardian (Oct. 18, 2017), [].

  6. See Harley-Parkinson, supra note 2.

  7. See Alberge, supra note 5.

  8. A prominent skeptic has been quoted as saying “The preponderance of the experts is that it is authentic, and so I would – but that doesn’t mean that I’d be absolutely sure. I’m a little bit more leaning towards the fact it’s authentic.” Alberge, supra note 5.

  9. See Ruth Rubenstein, Michelangelo’s Lost Sleeping Cupid and Fetti’s Vertumnus and Pomona, 49 J. of the Warburg and Courtauld Inst. 257-59 (1986).

  10. Id.

  11. Charles Bremner, Minister quits over ‘art fraud link’ to AS Monaco oligarch Dmitri Rybolovlev, The Times (Sept. 15, 2017), [].

  12. Id.

  13. In re Application for an Order Under 28 U.S.C § 1782 to Conduct Discovery for Use in Foreign Proceedings at ¶ 15, In re Accent Delight Int’l Ltd., No. 16-MC-125 (JMF), 2016 BL 332465 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 05, 2016).

  14. Id. at ¶ 26-30.

  15. See Bremner, supra note 11.

  16. Id.

  17. Id.

  18. Stephanie Baker & Hugo Miller, Russian Billionaire Charged in Privacy-Invasion Claim, Bloomberg (Oct. 19, 2017), [].

  19. In re Application for an Order Under 28 U.S.C § 1782 to Conduct Discovery for Use in Foreign Proceedings, supra note 13, at ¶ 12.

Jeffrey Greenwood

Jeffrey Greenwood is a second-year J.D. candidate at Fordham University School of Law, and a staff member of the Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal.