In 2011 a newly rediscovered work by Leonardo da Vinci surprised the art world. It was a painting known as Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World), which showed Jesus gesturing in blessing with his right hand while holding a solid crystal orb in his left.
The Salvator Mundi motif, which features Christ with an orb topped by a cross, known as a globus cruciger, had become very popular by the early 1500s, especially among northern European painters. Leonardo’s version contains some of his distinctive features: a figure that manages to be at once both reassuring and unsettling, a mysterious straight-on stare, an elusive smile, cascading curls, and sfumato softness.
Before the painting was authenticated, there was historic evidence that one like it existed. In the inventory of Salai’s estate was a painting of “Christ in the Manner of God the Father.” Such a piece was catalogued in the collections of the English king Charles I, who was beheaded in 1649, and also Charles II, who restored the monarchy in 1660.
The historical trail of Leonardo’s version was lost after the painting passed from Charles II to the Duke of Buckingham, whose son sold it in 1763. But a historic reference remained: the widow of Charles I had commissioned Wenceslaus Hollar to make an etching of the painting. There were also at least twenty copies painted by some of Leonardo’s followers.
The trail of the painting reappeared in 1900, when it was acquired by a British collector who did not suspect that it was by Leonardo. It had been damaged, overpainted, and so heavily varnished that it was unrecognizable, and it was attributed to Leonardo’s student Boltraffio. The work was later catalogued as a copy of Boltraffio’s copy. When the collector’s estate sold it at auction in 1958, it fetched less than one hundred dollars.
The painting was sold again in 2005, to a consortium of art dealers and…