The art world is a strange place. Millionaires and billionaires bid ridiculous amounts for even trivial pieces of art, and anything by one of the masters routinely goes for hundreds of millions of dollars. But ancient art is far from an exact science, and that’s what makes the story of the so-called “Salvator Mundi” so fascinating. It was bought in a small New Orleans auction house in 2005 for about $1,000, and appeared to be a copy of the famous Leonardo da Vinci painting known as the Salvator Mundi — a portrait of Christ facing the viewer, with his right hand raised. Da Vinci painted it in 1500, possibly for Louis XXII. There are plenty of copies of it around, but as the painting was painstakingly restored, its owner and the restorers working on it became convinced that it was the original Da Vinci — at which point it went from being worth a few hundred thousand dollars to being worth a few hundred million.
The picture has since sold once for $127.5 million and again, in a record-setting auction at Christie’s, for close to half a billion dollars. It has been held up as the “male Mona Lisa” and the “Holy Grail of old-master paintings” and derided by this magazine’s art critic, Jerry Saltz, as a “two-dimensional ersatz dashboard Jesus.” It has been owned by a Swiss tycoon, a Russian oligarch, and Saudi royalty. Its rise is both an astonishing tale of restoration and historical sleuthing and — for those inclined to see the world less romantically — a parable of highbrow greed, P. T. Barnum–style salesmanship, and reputation laundering.