Sometimes, it only takes an art appreciator’s eye (plus forensic research and appraisals, of course) to identify a dusty attic antique as a multi-million dollar masterpiece. In corners of homes across the world, valuable paintings from masters such as da Vinci, Gentileschi, and have resurfaced and been verified as originals before selling at auction for record-breaking prices. Here are the top five rediscovered artworks that were previously held in private collections.
“Salvator Mundi,” Leonardo da Vinci. Oil on panel, c. 1500. Photo: Christie’s.
1. “Salvator Mundi,” Leonardo da Vinci (c. 1500)
In November 2017, after being exhibited at Christie’s showrooms in Hong Kong, London, San Francisco, and New York the painting “Salvatore Mundi” by Leonardo da Vinci sold at the evening sale in New York for a jaw-dropping $450,312,500 – a new record price for an artwork.
The news of the most expensive painting in the world was on front pages worldwide, what you might not know is its backstory. “Salvator Mundi” was thought to be painted by Leonardo da Vinci around 1500. Like the Mona Lisa, it was painted on walnut, not canvas.
Scholars and dealers have pieced together its provenance. Possibly a commission by King Louis XII of France and his consort Anne of Brittany. Later it was surely owned by Charles I of England, as it is listed in his inventory. The work remained in the family’s possession until it was auctioned off by Charles Herbert Sheffield, the illegitimate son of the Duke of Buckingham, in 1763.
In 1900, the work, now attributed to Bernardo Luini a follower of da Vinci, was bought by Sir Charles Robinson and placed in the Cook Collection at Doughty House in Richmond, southwest London. There it remained until 1958 when it was sold at a Sotheby’s auction for £45 (the equivalent of about $60) to a couple from New Orleans, Louisiana.
Then in 2005, the estate, including the “Salvatore Mundi” painting, of the Louisiana family patriarch came up for sale at a regional auction house. A consortium of art dealers acquired the work for less than $10,000 and spent the next few years having the painting restored and authenticated.
In May 2013 the Swiss dealer Yves Bouvier purchased the work for just over $75 million, and the painting was then sold to Russian collector Dmitry Rybolovlev for $127.5 million.
Which brings us to the present day; the record-breaking acquisition, like the work itself, is still somewhat shrouded in mystery.
On December 7, the Wall Street Journal named Saudi Arabia’s Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the true owner of the artwork. He had used another member of the Saudi Royal family, Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al Saud, who earlier was reported as the buyer, as his proxy. On December 8th, the Louvre Abu Dhabi issued a statement saying that the Department of Culture and Tourism had acquired the work for the museum.
Despite, or perhaps thanks to, the question marks surrounding “Salvatore Mundi” it is sure that the work has and will continue to play a role in the lure of the Middle East as an important region on the international art and museum stage.
“Lucretia,” Artemisia Gentileschi. Oil on canvas, c. 1630-45. Photo: Dorotheum.
2. “Lucretia,” Artemisia Gentileschi (c. 1630-45)
Never auctioned before, this rediscovered masterpiece by Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi sold in October 2018 for $1.82 million – more than double its estimate at the Viennese auction house Dorotheum.
For her notorious rape trial, Anna Brady calls Gentileschi “an Old Master Poster Girl of the #Metoo era,” in an article in Artnet. The records from Gentileschi’s seven-month trial portray a strong young girl pushing back against the oppression of her time. At the ripe age of eighteen Gentileschi’s father, Orazio hired Agostino Tassi, a painter of some prominence, to help develop her painting skills. After a painting session, Tassi snuck into her room, pushed her down on the bed, and put a handkerchief over her mouth to muffle her screams before raping her – she said to the court.
She clearly fought back, “I scratched his face and pulled his hair and, before he penetrated me again, I grasped his penis so tight that I even removed a piece of flesh,” she said in court. Numerous witnesses attested to Tassi’s bad character, that he had murdered his wife, and conversely described Gentileschi as a girl who rarely went out, mostly engrossed with her painting. Yet, in the end, Gentileschi was tortured and Tassi went free, as he was protected by the pope, Pope Innocent X.
Gentileschi’s court case made her famous overnight, allowing her to continue her painting practice. At a time when women were not allowed into the academies, this notoriety allowed her to support herself as an artist, which she did with bravado. In 1638, news of her person reached England, and Charles I invited her to London to work for him.
Gentileschi was known to paint strong and heroic women of Ancient and Christian mythology. Lucretia depicts a Roman noblewoman who was raped by the son of an Etruscan king. In her shame, she committed suicide by dagger.
The work was consigned from an aristocratic collection where it had been kept since the mid-19th century. Nicola Spinosa wrote about the painting in the exhibition catalog for “Artemisia Gentileschi and Her Times,” at the Museo di Roma and in the catalog of the Gentileschi show in Palazzo Braschi, Rome. But, it has never been on view to the public.
Despite being one of the few surviving female talents of her time, Gentileschi’s work “fell out of the canon,” according to Mark Macdonnell of Dorotheum, in the 18th and 19th century for their violence.
Now that the canon is being revised, or perhaps erased, her work has emerged and scholars celebrate her immense talent and the energy that reverberates from her depictions of strong young women. With works by Caravaggio and da Vinci going for over the hundred million dollar mark, it will be exciting to see when Gentileschi’s work will, if ever, catch up.
“The Unconscious Patient (An Allegory of the Sense of Smell),” Rembrandt van Rijn. Oil on panel, c. 1624. Photo: The Getty.
3. “The Unconscious Patient (An Allegory of the Sense of Smell),” Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, (c. 1624)
In the early 15th century, a teenage Rembrandt created a series of oil panels that each depicted one of the five senses. This work, painted in 1624, portrays an unconscious young man who’s being revived with what appears to be smelling salts (‘smell’).
The work sat in a New Jersey basement for years, and was estimated at just $500 to $800 when it came to the auction block at Nye and Company in Bloomfield, New Jersey. The bidding soared to $870,000 when two Paris art dealers, Bertrand Talabardon and Bertrand Gautier, who run Galerie Talabardon et Gautier, identified it as one of the Dutch master’s first canvases. The American billionaire Thomas S. Kaplan, CEO of New York investment and management firm Electrum Group, then bought the painting at a price reported in the range of US$3-4 million in 2016, and exhibited it at TEFAF with Sight, Sound, and Hearing (Taste’s whereabouts are unknown).
“Wild Bull Hunting (Bateng),” Raden Saleh. Oil on canvas, 1855. Photo: The Jakarta Post.
4. “Wild Bull Hunting (Bateng),” Raden Saleh, (1855)
This painting by the first Indonesian modern master of the nineteenth century, Raden Saleh, “Wild Bull Hunting (Bateng),” was kept for many years in the cellar of a house in Auray, France before its discovery. In January 2018, it was sold for $8.2 million at auction in Vannes, a record price for a painting by the artist. Dating from 1855, this hunting scene was acquired by an anonymous collector from Jakarta.
Born into a Javanese royal family with Arab descent, Raden Saleh Sjarif Boestaman was the first Indonesia artist to receive training in Europe. When he was 10 he moved to Batavia (now Jakarta), where he made friends with the Dutch and began painting and drawing. In 1829, with financial support from the general governor of Jakarta, Raden Saleh went to the Netherlands to pursue his artistic education.
In Europe, he quickly received recognition from and was collected by the aristocracy. By King Willem III of the Netherlands, he was called the “King’s Painter.” He even exhibited his work at the Rijksmuseum. While exhibiting in Hague, Raden Saleh met a French lion trainer, Henri Martin. This meeting inspired Raden Saleh to begin painting Orientalist lions and animal fights, paintings that brought him fame all the way to Western Europe like France and Germany.
In 1852 Rahen Saleh returned to Jakarta where he worked as a conservator for the Dutch Indies government and continued to paint portraits, and landscapes – now, however, they depicted the tropical lands of his homeland. “Wild Bull Hunting” was presumably painted there.
Saleh’s works are held in the collections of several prominent museums Galeri National, Indonesia; Rijkmuseum and Tropenmuseum, Netherlands; Latvian National Museum of Art, Latvia; and Smithsonian Art Museum, USA. With fewer than 20 works in Indonesia, it is exciting that this work is traveling back to its original home country.
“Judith Beheading Holofernes,” Caravaggio. Oil on canvas, c. 1600-10.
5. “Judith Beheading Holofernes,” Caravaggio (c. 1600-10)
This 400-year-old canvas – depicting the beheading of Assyrian general Holofernes by Judith from the biblical Book of Judith – was found in 2014 when the owners of a house near Toulouse, France were investigating a leak in the ceiling.
Discovered in remarkably good condition, the work is believed to have been painted between 1600 and 1610 by Caravaggio and could be worth as much as $136 million according to specialists.
However, the origins of another “Judith Beheading Holofernes” (c. 1599 to 1602) have been contested after analysis by experts, as to whether it was truly painted by Caravaggio or Louis Finson, a 17th-century Flemish painter that faithfully followed his style. The same controversy surrounds this attic Caravaggio, with some believing it is genuine and others asserting that Caravaggio’s singular intensity is missing.
Bruno Arcipret, the premier conservator of Caravaggio’s work said: “It has interesting characteristics that can be attributed to Caravaggio,” but insists that more research must be done. Having conserved both “Flagellation of the Christ” and “Seven Works of Mercy” he knows the artists hand well. Another expert, Mina Gregori is reportedly skeptical. Both Nicolas Spinosa and the French art expert Eric Turquin who is currently entrusted with the piece believes it to be an authentic Caravaggio.
That said, the French government placed an export ban on the canvas in 2016 in order for it to undergo further analysis. The ban lasts until this month, so it remains to be seen what happens next.
A shorter version of this article was also published on Barnebys.
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Anna Mikaela Ekstrand is editor-in-chief and founder of Cultbytes. She mediates art through writing, curating, and lecturing. Her latest books are Assuming Asymmetries: Conversations on Curating Public Art Projects of the 1980s and 1990s and Curating Beyond the Mainstream. Send your inquiries, tips, and pitches to email@example.com.