Constructing Leonardo: Authorship, Value, and the Hole at the Center of a Modern ‘Masterpiece’
The painting known as Salvator Mundi, attributed to Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci, sold at auction in 2017 for a record breaking $450 million dollars. The very same work sold for just over $1,000 when it was discovered in New Orleans in 2005. The work remained constant; what changed was its authorship, specifically its attachment to Leonardo da Vinci. Art history’s canon rests on the belief that an artist’s name provides financial value to a work because of that individual’s unique skill, visible in the work at hand as well as in other parts of their oeuvre. But our understandings of how authorship and both aesthetic and financial value function are upended by the case of Salvator Mundi’s dubious attribution, as the work raised in value despite uncertainty around its author. By scrutinizing the construction of authorship and value and their intersections in Salvator Mundi, “Constructing Leonardo” unpackages the unstable ground upon which aesthetic and financial value rests, an instability that stretches beyond the object into the broader contemporary construction of the art object, in the market and beyond.