The New York museum behind one of the most expensive paintings in history recently cast new doubt on its authenticity, and scholars are reacting with surprise that the supposed masterpiece could be completely false.
When British collector Samuel Rossalot found “Salvator Mundi” in the museum’s collection in 1932, he set out to raise $2 million for its purchase. By 1934, however, he had stumbled upon a secret stash of 400 works purchased for the same price from dealer Hans Holbein the Younger’s collections during the 18th century. He paid the engraver, Hugo van der Goes, $700 for his work, using the British equivalent of today’s $100 bill.
The painting’s mysterious life had come to an end by the ’30s, when it arrived at a New York museum — on the way from Germany — and was titled simply “Salvator Mundi.” It was purchased for only $3.60 in 1954, then moved to the Italian museum that now owns it.
Shortly after, the painting’s value soared in May 2012 when it was sold at Christie’s Auction House for $450 million — breaking the record for an artwork sold. It remains the most expensive work of art ever sold. (Earlier this month, the same painting sold for $156.5 million at Sotheby’s in London.)
The prominent Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York refused to take the painting, however, without proof of its provenance, and Rossalot’s quest to raise another $2 million to buy it from the Italian museum only succeeded last year. When the auction closed, the museum received a new bid of $27.5 million, more than twice the previous one. The painting could not be sold without the museum’s approval.
But in a statement released this week, the Metropolitan Museum cast doubt on the provenance of the painting. Due to a report last year from a university survey commissioned by Christie’s, the museum believes that it may have been an overzealous consignor that fraudulently bought the painting from the Nazis in World War II.
In such circumstances, it seems unclear what path the $27.5 million bid would have taken.
Thomas Campbell, the Met’s new director, said in a statement that the painting’s provenance remains “in doubt.”
“The painting’s previous owners had a fraudulent provenance,” he said. “As a consequence, the painting’s previous owners had no legitimate right to sell it. This fact, which is well known in the art world, is behind our refusal to take the painting.”
The Belgian museum which owns the painting likewise cast doubt on the painting’s authenticity. “The study has shown that the piece is actually 17th-century artwork,” museum president Florentineos Mastroianni told the New York Times.
The painting has been in Italy since 1941, when Francesco Clemente, a man who had acquired the painting when he was an art dealer, personally delivered it to Joachim von Neurath, who headed the Gestapo in Rome. Neurath, who headed the Hitlerjugend, ruled Italy during much of the Second World War.
After World War II, the painting was transferred to Clemente, who was killed during the Balkan Wars. A Finnish criminal investigator, Jaakko Möllnerius, identified the painting as Clemente’s in 1993, concluding that it had come from Clemente’s collection when he was in Rome in 1939 and in Calabria in 1941.
Today, the painting was identified by Danish art scholar Dale Gandara as one of the paintings that had been consigned to Rossalot’s hidden trove.
Now, the Met is weighing whether it should take on the painting and court “Salvator Mundi.” The museum contends that it is a “devious fake,” which could be a Nazi propaganda piece.
It has accepted similar risks before, accepting an especially problematic photograph of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” in 2000.
Meanwhile, the museum itself will need to become better trained at authenticating paintings, because it is likely to get that many more.