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Old Masters: alive as never before

Wednesday 28 February 2018

Leonardo Salvator Mundi

It will not have escaped anyone that a remarkable auction took place in New York on 15 November 2017. On that day, in the midst of 58 lots of contemporary art under number 9B, the painting of Christ as Ruler of the World by Leonardo da Vinci was sold to Abu Dhabi for a record amount of $ 450,312,500 for placement in the new Louvre there.

With admiration, but also with disbelief and even anger and horror, this sale was subsequently responded to. Experts openly questioned the authenticity despite the many arguments - summarized by Christie's in a beautiful overview in the middle of the special publication - that argued for such an originality: the walnut wood panel, the walnut glue found in the ground, the structure of the paint in thin layers with the effect of Leonardo so famous sfumato, the change in the position of the thumb in the blessing hand of Christ, the Lapus Lazuli of the cloak and the meander pattern in the straps across his chest and last but not least two studies for the right arm and sleeve of Christ in the Royal Collections in Windsor.

Apart from the different emotions that the auction of the painting has released, on 15 November 2017 history was written in several respects. The most important ones I put in a row:

1. With the record price paid for Leonardo da Vinci 's Christ as ruler of the world, the art market has definitely taken on a new direction. From now on it is about objects with a global reach.

2. Leonardo's Christ as the ruler of the world was rightly acknowledged and recognized as an object with global reach. After all, Christ is depicted here as a mystical divine appearance, with a precious mantle and rock crystal sphere. This mystical form was given to him by the three kings from the East who brought Him incense, myrrh and gold. Leonardo 's image is thus a true icon, which in the people felt as possessing and radiating godly powers.

3. Christ as ruler of the world by Leonardo is well placed in Abu Dhabi. The unique Western and Eastern character of the painting will hopefully be a sign of connection between West and East.

4. Connoisseurship, by which is meant the trained eye who can discern an select knowledge, requires a new definition. The discovery - rather unraveling the story - of the Leonardo, was not a question of a split second of one person’s eye, but a years-long process involving many experts from different disciplines.

5. In a time when millions of people are willing to travel to the far corners of the world to see and experience the most important works of art, museums have become important institutions. They have become the new places of admiration and wonder, as Thomas Struth has wonderfully shown in his 1989 series of Museum Photographs. His images and that of other contemporary artists have determined a new view and engagement with the great art of the past. The phenomenon of modern global cultural tourism will only grow.

Thomas Struth