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.
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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.
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. Hendry Tureau remembers a number of religious-themed paintings at her father’s house, though not specifically the da Vinci. Hendry Tureau’s brother, Basil Clovis Hendry Jr., didn’t respond to requests for comment. Her niece couldn’t be reached for comment.
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. 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 Sotheby’s 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.
An expanded version of this report appears on WSJ.com.
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