This Was the Wait to See a $100 Million Painting

Twice lost to history, and valued at only $100 as recently as the 1950s, Leonardo da Vinci's "Salvator Mundi" goes to auction next month.

More than 500 years after Leonardo da Vinci painted Salvator Mundi — a captivating depiction of Jesus Christ that’s now valued at $100 million — the artwork found its way last week to San Francisco, where it draw gawking crowds of art-goers in an atmosphere that is best described as “surreal” and “intense.” The auction house Christie’s will sell Salvator Mundi to the highest bidder on Nov. 15 in New York, and the artwork’s stopover at Minnesota Street Project was part of a brief worldwide tour to preview the painting for potential buyers and to casual art-goers.

For three straight days, art aficionados waited in long lines for their turn to see a painting that’s stylistically related to da Vinci’s most famous piece, Mona Lisa. “Holy shit!” one arrival said, surveying the outside scene on the last day. As Richard Schwarzenberger waited in that same line, which would take an hour to move toward the entrance, the art-goer said he took the day off from work to experience Salvator Mundi firsthand.

Leonardo da Vinci, “Salvator Mundi.” (Courtesy of Christie’s)

“It’s probably my only opportunity to see such a masterwork,” he told SF Weekly. But Schwarzenberger was cautious: He’s seen Mona Lisa at the Louvre, but there were so many art-goers around that painting, he couldn’t really see it. “Only as a fly-by — and then I walked down to see something else,” he said. “It was so crowded. You could look over people’s shoulders to see it. And there’s so much else to see [at the Louvre]. To see the Mona Lisawell, I know what is. I don’t know what this painting is, actually. So this is going to be a new thing.”

As Schwarzenberger and hundreds of others inched along Tennessee and 24th streets, a young Minnesota Street Project staffer tried to encourage their patience.

“You’re almost there!” she said. “How’s everyone doing? Anyone need directions to the bathroom?”

People kept asking her about her glasses — they were big, white and heart-shaped — and whether “it was worth it” to wait so long in the midday sun.

“It is worth it,” she said, then noted that the exhibit of “Post-War and Contemporary Art” featured other famous artists besides da Vinci, including Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Wayne Thiebaud, and Willem de Kooning. “There are,” she said, “a lot of other heavy-hitters.”

The “others” didn’t really matter, even though they are seminal artists whose works are relatively inexpensive. (On Nov. 15, Thiebaud’s Cherries, from 1982, can be had for about $250,000, while Warhol’s Dollar Sign from 1981 is being offered for about $500,000.) When Schwarzenberger and his art-going cohorts entered the building, they went straight to Gallery 200 and the room that had Salvator Mundi, whose English title is “Savior of the World.” As a scrum of camera-wielding people packed the area around the painting, two security guards in black stood to the left and right. Other overseers stood to the side, to make sure nothing untoward happened.

Da Vinci created the work for King Louis XII of France, and the painting’s history is almost novelistic. Fewer than 20 da Vinci paintings are known to exist, and Salvator Mundi was essentially lost to the art market for hundreds of years — first from 1763 to 1900, Christie’s says, and then for more than 100 years because its owners thought the piece was by a da Vinci acolyte, not the master himself. At a 1958 auction, Salvator Mundi was sold for less than $100.

The crowd outside Minnesota Street Project (Jonathan Curiel)

But in 2005, a new owner began investigating the painting’s provenance and began showing it to da Vinci experts. In 2011, curators announced Salvator Mundi as a genuine da Vinci rediscovery. Christie’s is hyping the sale, calling the work “without question the greatest artistic rediscovery of the 21st century” and a “singular example of a painting by da Vinci in private hands.” Loic Gouzer, Christie’s Chairman, Post-War and Contemporary Art, has bragged that “the opportunity to bring this masterpiece to the market is an honour that comes around once in a lifetime.”

Everyone who stood near Salvator Mundi in San Francisco, including the security guards, agreed with Gouzer. “It is very astounding,” Stanley Lewis, one of the guards, told SF Weekly as he stood inches from the painting. “They’re so happy to see it. And they’re scared that once it leaves, they’re never going to see it again. It may go to a museum, but it will probably go to a private collector.”

Those who missed the San Francisco “pop-up exhibit” can still Salvator Mundi and the rest of the works in London from Oct. 24-26 and twice more in New York — at another preview (Oct. 28 to Nov. 4) and at Christie’s Nov. 15 sale. If he had $100 million, Lewis said, he would purchase it.

“Of course,” he said, “Definitely.”

But Lewis doesn’t have that money. So he was happy to do what others did at Minnesota Street Project: Stand next to the work as if they already owned it. They stood as long as they could, and Lewis — despite the “security guard” face that he had to show – seemed the happiest of all. No waiting in long lines. No jostling with crowds. Just standing tall as can be, and waiting for the next wave of people to come and see Salvator Mundi.


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