Leonardo da Vinci’s rediscovered painting of Christ as the world’s savior, “Salvator Mundi”—auctioned last year for a record-setting $450.3 million—has been owned by British kings and Russian oligarchs. But until now no one knew much about the nearly half-century it spent lost in obscurity in the U.S.
Fresh details have emerged about the da Vinci’s whereabouts and the unsuspecting Louisiana family who lived with the painting for decades before a pair of Old Master dealers bought it from their patriarch’s estate sale in New Orleans in 2005 for less than $10,000. The dealers, Robert Simon and Alexander Parrish, have since successfully lobbied the art world for its reauthentication as a work by the Renaissance master.
The findings about its lost years in Louisiana, gleaned from cross-referencing photographs, auction catalogs, obituaries, and other documents, fill a key gap in the meandering ownership history of the world’s most expensive painting. Da Vinci’s circa-1500 image of Christ dressed in blue robes with his left hand cradling a clear orb may not be as instantly recognizable as his “Mona Lisa,” but it’s a rare treasure. Fewer than 20 of da Vinci’s paintings survive and more than a century has passed since the last time one was rediscovered.
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Susan Hendry Tureau, a 70-year-old retired library technician in Baton Rouge, La., only last week learned that a painting her father, Basil Clovis Hendry Sr., had owned was reauthenticated as a da Vinci. She said he acquired the painting after she and her siblings were adults and no longer living with him. Her brother and her niece remember seeing it hanging in the plantation-style Baton Rouge home of her father, who owned a local sheet-metal company, she said. Ms. Hendry Tureau remembers a number of religious-themed paintings at her father’s house, though not specifically the da Vinci. Ms. Hendry Tureau’s brother, Basil Clovis Hendry Jr., didn’t respond to requests for comment. Her niece couldn’t be reached for comment.
“We can’t believe it, that such an incredible piece could have been in our family and we didn’t even know it all this time,” Ms. Hendry Tureau said. “It just sort of brings me alive.”
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Ms. Hendry Tureau said her father, who died in June 2004, inherited artworks after the 1987 death of his aunt, Minnie Stanfill Kuntz. The aunt’s husband, Warren E. Kuntz, ran a furniture business in New Orleans and died in 1968. Ms. Hendry Tureau said her great aunt and great uncle often traveled to Europe, and purchased art and antiques for their collection while abroad. Travel records uncovered by The Wall Street Journal indicate the couple returned from London in the summer of 1958—just as
was auctioning the estate of Sir Francis Cook, including the painting. By that point, the da Vinci had been mischaracterized as a “school of da Vinci” portrait of Christ by one of the artist’s pupils, Giovanni Boltraffio, whose works are not as coveted.
The painting was sold for £45 (about $120) on June 25, 1958, to “Kuntz Private Collection USA,” according to Sotheby’s official provenance records, indicating its likely buyers were the Kuntzes. Twelve days after the sale, the Kuntzes boarded a ship from Southampton, England, bound for Houston, travel records show.
The identity of the Kuntz buyer had long been a mystery. The 2005 joint buyer Mr. Simon says he wasn’t able to figure it out. “All I know is that the buyer at Sotheby’s in 1958 was someone named Kuntz,” he said. “Collection? Dealer? Shipping company? Sobriquet? Could be anything.”
Mr. Simon says he has been unable to disclose details of the 2005 sale because of a nondisclosure agreement he signed when he sold the painting in 2013.
He provided The Wall Street Journal with a photo that he says shows the painting hanging in a stairway. Mr. Simon said he received the photo in an email from Mr. Parrish after the 2005 auction. Mr. Parrish told him he had found it online in a real-estate listing for the Hendry home. Mr. Parrish didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Ms. Hendry Tureau said the photograph shows a staircase in her father’s former home. “This has to be my dad’s house. It just looks exactly like it. Especially with that beam going across,” she said while viewing Mr. Simon’s photograph.
The Wall Street Journal established the tie between the Kuntzes and Mr. Hendry after researching details about the estate listed in the April 2005 St. Charles Gallery catalog. The Wall Street Journal also found obituaries for Mr. Hendry that included the address of his former Baton Rouge home.
Art dealer Robert Simon and his colleague Alexander Parish bought a painting by an unknown artist in 2005. Simon then asked his friend Dianne Modestini to restore it. Her work on the piece eventually led to the discovery that it was Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi,” and helped her through one of the hardest times in her life. Image: Robert Libetti/The Wall Street Journal
Ms. Hendry Tureau doesn’t think her relatives—or her father—knew of the work’s significance because it had been heavily overpainted and didn’t appear to contain the psychological density and detailing that are signatures of da Vinci’s paintings, elements that apparently shone after cleaning.
As to its more distant history, other records trace the painting back to King Charles I, who listed it as part of his royal inventory a year before he was executed in 1649. It changed hands multiple times after that, according to Christie’s and somewhere along the way its attribution got lost.
When Ms. Hendry Tureau’s father died, the appraisal certificate for his estate’s artwork valued a portrait of the head of Christ for $750, according to a copy she retained. She said her brother, the executor of the estate, sent items to Christie’s auction house in New York and the St. Charles Gallery branch of New Orleans Auction Gallery in New Orleans. The New Orleans auction house included the da Vinci in its April 9-10, 2005, sale, according to a copy of the catalog obtained by The Wall Street Journal. Lot 664’s estimate: $1,200 to $1,800. New Orleans Auction Gallery, which subsequently went through bankruptcy proceedings, later came under new ownership.
Taylor Eichenwald, director of marketing and public relations for New Orleans Auction Gallery says the company has no records from the previous business. “We are not associated with that company at all,” he said.
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Reflecting on the missed opportunity, Ms. Hendry Tureau says she’s still happy that the next owners were able to uncover it’s real worth. “It’s just amazing.” she said. “But now you know it’s like ‘Oh God, why couldn’t we still have this thing?’ ”
After winning the work, the dealers teamed up with a few others to hire Dianne Dwyer Modestini, a paintings conservator at New York University, to clean and study it. After she realized the work might be a da Vinci, the dealers spent several years taking it to museum curators to seek validation.
The painting made its public debut in a 2011 da Vinci retrospective at London’s National Gallery, and two years later, the dealers sold it to a Swiss art advisor, Yves Bouvier, for $80 million. Mr. Bouvier immediately resold it to his main client, Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, for $127 million—a mark-up that later sparked a legal dispute between the two and spurred Mr. Rybolovlev’s decision to offload “Salvator Mundi” at Christie’s last November. The dispute continues. Mr. Rybolovlev’s and Mr. Bouvier’s representatives declined to comment.
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Both Christie’s and Sotheby’s have declined to comment on the recent discoveries about the painting’s provenance.
Christie’s estimated it would sell for $100 million—but the sale proved historic when it sold for $450.3 million to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The crown prince then gave it as a diplomatic gift to Abu Dhabi. Today, “Salvator Mundi” forms part of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s collection.
The painting was set to go on view Sept. 18 at the museum, but earlier this month the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism postponed the exhibition indefinitely.
Ms. Hendry Tureau said the masterpiece’s lost-and-found saga—and her family’s forgotten role in it—are still “hard to absorb,” she said. “In my little humdrum retirement life you know, to have something this major happen. It’s so exciting.”
— Maya Tippett and Lisa Schwartz contributed to this article
Source : WSJ