Get in Line: The $100 Million Da Vinci Is in Town

Martha Hammock

Nina Doede, 65, a former financial manager based in New York, experienced the kind of heightened emotional reaction that psychologists have identified as “Stendhal syndrome,” or hyperkulturemia, an effect caused by aesthetic euphoria.

“Standing in front of that painting was a spiritual experience,” said Ms. Doede. “It was breathtaking. It brought tears to my eyes,” she added, as she left the sepulchral chamber where the painting is displayed.

Marc Sands, Christie’s chief marketing officer, said it was the auction house’s first-ever use of an outside agency to advertise an artwork. Sharp-eyed observers noticed that the typeface used for Droga5’s online campaign was remarkably similar to the one that promoted the 2006 movie, “The Da Vinci Code,” based on the best-selling novel by Dan Brown. Mr. Sands said any similarity was “entirely coincidental.”

Scholars generally refer to a work by the artist as a “Leonardo,” but, as Mr. Sands explained, “da Vinci” has “much higher levels of recognition.”

The “Salvator Mundi” is being sold by the family trust of the Russian billionaire collector Dmitry E. Rybolovlev, who bought it in 2013 for $127.5 million and had never exhibited the work in public before now. The sense that this is rare opportunity to view a Leonardo was heightened in New York, where no museum collection contains a painting by the artist.

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., possesses the only example in North America. The museum paid more than $5 million in a private transaction in 1967 (roughly $36.4 million in today’s dollars) to secure “Ginevra de’ Benci,” a portrait from the 1470s. No other painting by the artist has appeared on the open market in the last 100 years.

“It’s the 16th Leonardo painting,” said Dianne Dwyer Modestini, based in New York, who restored the “Salvator Mundi.” The painting, showing Christ with his right hand raised in blessing and his left holding a crystal orb, was bought by a dealer, unrecognized, in 2005, in an overpainted and damaged condition.

While Christie’s claims “an unusually uniform scholarly consensus” that the painting is by Leonardo himself, some respected experts on Renaissance art who have seen the work failed to succumb to “Stendhal Syndrome.”

“Even making allowances for its extremely poor state of preservation, it is a curiously unimpressive composition and it is hard to believe that Leonardo himself was responsible for anything so dull,” wrote Charles Hope, an emeritus professor at the Warburg Institute at the University of London, in his 2012 review of a National Gallery exhibition that included the “Salvator Mundi.”

Ms. Modestini, the restorer, said in an interview that she hopes the work will ultimately be on public view in a museum. “It’s easy to be negative about a damaged picture, and you can argue that a section of drapery might have been painted by a studio assistant, but this should be allowed to live as a Leonardo rather than be someone’s trophy,” she added.

On Wednesday night, auction watchers will find out how many bidders with $100 million to spend have been stirred — and their wallets shaken — by the “Savior of the World.”

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