Grunting, decrying, drumming, pounding, rifle shots – a grainy black-and-white photograph of a row of rifles firing weapons bears little resemblance to the priceless Salvator Mundi – until you view it another way.
An analysis of the photograph sold in London last week for £450m has cast fresh doubt on the authenticity of the Mona Lisa-style painting the auction house Sotheby’s billed as one of the world’s most important pictures.
The painting, which portrays Christ’s agony in the crucifixion, was said to have been painted in the final years of Leonardo da Vinci’s career by a contemporary, El Greco. It was signed by two of Leonardo’s contemporaries, both contemporaries of El Greco.
In his report, Marco Carnera, an Italian expert who has been studying the work, said the identity of the two men was questionable and that the signature it bore was the only evidence that it was the work of Leonardo. It is as if two works with matching features had been painted by two different painters at different times.
Asked who the signature belonged to, he said: “They weren’t acknowledged among the founding members of the Fondazione SCR, the Parisian artist’s workshop based in Casablanca that produced many of the Mona Lisa’s works.”
Sotheby’s could not confirm the authenticity of the painting, but it said an authentication dispute between the auction house and Carnera had already been settled in 2003, when a court in Italy ruled in Sotheby’s favour.
Asked if his report was being leaked to attract media attention, Carnera said: “I’m certainly not using it as a ploy. Of course, once a picture is sold in a sale in London, its story could be timed to get more attention.”
The Mona Lisa, now estimated at an even higher £550m, was a painting by Leonardo da Vinci from 1500-1601 and regarded as the most valuable surviving painting in the world.
The Salvator Mundi is an oil painting on vellum of Christ holding his arms up to God and pressing a single finger to his lips to suppress his tears in a well-known still life.
The painting, described by Forbes magazine as “one of the greatest scandals in art history”, was stolen in 2005 from the Gagosian Gallery in New York.
Leonardo Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi. Photograph: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images
It had been expected to fetch $300m (£225m) at auction in London, but went for double that on Thursday evening, a record for a work of art sold at auction, though not a record for any artist.
The painting is on view in Sotheby’s New York from Friday, but the outcome of the authentication claims could affect the future of the sale.
Carnera, a specialist in signed works of art, has been sceptical of Leonardo ever since the work was shown to him in New York in 2003, and the photograph of the work in the London sale catalogue was released only yesterday.
He said: “I think it is hard to conclude that this picture was painted by Leonardo, and that makes it very difficult to draw the ultimate conclusion on its authenticity. I’m really not seeing what the collectors see, and it is out of context, because it depicts a painting, rather than a photograph.”
But, the Gagosian Gallery in London said it was “more certain than ever” that the work was by Leonardo.
The Gagosian’s director of marketing and communications, Daniel Arsham, said: “The canvases we present have been authenticated by experts in the field and with the highest degree of certainty over many years, and the Gagosian Gallery has no room for room for doubt.
“We are in constant contact with expert experts as well as our dealers, collectors and [cultural] partners to ensure that our artists are presented with the highest level of evidence to the world, as we do to all of our galleries around the world.”