When Sir Francis Cook sold the painting in 1958, he thought he was selling a work by a student—albeit a student of Italian Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci.
What Cook sold for £45 (equivalent to about £999 today, or $1,320) just sold on Nov. 15 at a Christie’s auction for the highest price ever fetched by a work of art at auction: $450.3 million.
On Nov. 17, Sir Cook’s grandson, 58-year-old Richard Cook, was forced to recall that the painting had once hung in the family home.
“The painting would look great over the dining room wall,” he quipped to a reporter from the Daily Mail.
He was philosophical about what many might see as a lost opportunity: “I haven’t let anything slip through my fingers— it was Leonardo’s painting!”
He was glad that the painting has fetched a record-setting price. “I think it’s absolutely wonderful news. Old masters have been undervalued for a very long time. I am an art historian myself and used to work for Christie’s New York.”
The painting depicts a figure of Jesus Christ with one hand raised in benediction, holding a blue orb which represents the world in his other hand.
“Salvator Mundi” was painted around the time da Vinci painted the much better known “Mona Lisa.” It is one of fewer than 20 works generally acknowledged as being the work of the multi-talented Italian master.
No museum in New York City has a da Vinci painting on display, which accounted for the crowds Christie’s Auction House saw while the work was on display.
“I can hardly convey how exciting it is for those of us directly involved in its sale,” Christie’s specialist Alan Wintermute told NBC News. “The word ‘masterpiece’ barely begins to convey the rarity, importance and sublime beauty of Leonardo’s painting.”
He called it “the Holy Grail” of old master paintings.
The painting was sold to an as-yet unidentified buyer, working through an agent.
The total price was $450,312,500. The actual sale price was $400.43 million. The total price includes an auction fee—Christie’s cut.
The previous record was $304 million paid in 2015 for Willem de Kooning’s “Interchange,” which was sold privately.
Pablo Picasso’s “Women of Algiers (Version O)” (“Les Femmes D’Alger”) set a price record for an auction sale when it sold for $179.4 million in May 2015.
Some experts doubt that the piece is actually an original work by da Vinci—or if it was, it has been altered so many times, according to X-ray analysis, no one is sure who might have painted the version visible now.
Da Vinci started painting “Salvator Mundi” in 1506 on a commission for France’s King Louis XII; the painting was completed in 1523.
It seems the painting was passed on to Princess Henrietta Maria of France who brought it to England in 1625 when she married King Charles I.
The painting was auctioned by the son of the Duke of Buckingham in 1763. After that sale, the painting disappeared from public knowledge.
The painting popped up again in 1900, when Sir Charles Robinson sold it to Sir Francis Cook as a work by Bernardino Luini, a follower of Leonardo. It was later identified as the work of Boltraffio.
The painting stayed in the Cook family for four generations until the latest Sir Francis Cook sold, what he thought was a work by Boltraffio, to Sotheby’s in 1958 for £45.
The Robert Simon group bought the painting in 2004 for £10,000 (about £14,500 today or $19,160). They had the painting cleaned and examined by a panel of international experts. After 500 years of dirt and many layers of overpainting were removed, the experts declared the work to be a genuine da Vinci.
The painting went on display at Britain’s National Gallery in London in 2011.
In 2013, Paris-based art dealer Yves Bouvier purchased the work at a Sotheby’s private sale for about £53 million. He bought it on behalf of a Russian billionaire, who accused Bouvier of cheating him out of $1 billion by misrepresenting sale prices on some 38 pieces, including the “Salvator Mundi.”