Leonardo and the magic world of auctions

The renewed controversy over the attribution of Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi calls for a reflection on how it has become all-important not so much to choose which painting to buy but which attribution.

We have seen several times how the purchase of some artworks was later refused because of a disputed attribution. Indeed, the painting does not change, but the attribution does, and it makes all the difference.

A typical path is that of the so-called dormant attributions, or works initially proposed in generalist auctions, which after a few years acquire credit , with new more prestigious attributions, and become among the objects of most interest of important circuits. The carousel often does not end there. Because the prestigious attributions are then challenged and questioned. And again the economic value changes.

Logically, one would think that the more important the proposed name is, the more thorough the testing, and, therefore, more certain and definitive the attribution.

Moreover, since the auction is governed by a sales contract, one could imagine that among the documents available to the buyer there must be also the results of a standardized scientific diagnostic campaign – not limited at mere photographic snapshots or involving the use of other not appropriate instrumentation, but following a specific protocol.

But in reality these cases are still rare.

In the magical world of auctions, unlike in other fields, the buyer is not allowed, for example, to appoint own consultants to check the documents exhibited or perform new tests.

Take the Salvator Mundi: it was initially a “Boltraffio” at a lesser auction, then it was later proposed as a “Leonardo” with great fanfare. And only today the controversy focuses on the effectiveness of the analyses used and questions whether all  possibilities have been examined.

We wonder, for example, if the recently discovered Salvator Mundi, owned by the Museum of San Domenico Maggiore in Naples, has already been studied with a correct scientific perspective or if it will also be taken for a merrygoround.

We know that during the loan for the “Leonardo in Rome” exhibition in 2019, it underwent a restoration and was proposed with an uncertain attribution Girolamo Alibrandi or the beloved Caprotti. But what about a serious diagnostic campaign?

Of course it is not (yet) proposed as a work by Leonardo but nevertheless a complete diagnostic campaign could help to better clarify the genesis of the copies of this subject by the Leonardesque circle. And to record how it is scientifically possible to distinguish an Alibrandi from a Leonardo. And stop the carousel.

(Emanuela Massa)

(Emanuela Massa)