So now the question is, will that astonishing amount of money banish doubts about its authenticity? Logically, one should say: Of course not. Although some serious scholars believe that the painting, which depicts Jesus holding a transparent crystal orb in his left hand, can be attributed to the Renaissance master, the restoration was so thoroughgoing that it might be safer to say: There is possibly some Leonardo in there.
Those who are convinced it is by Leonardo point to games the artist played with clarity and focus, the way some details are strikingly clear but other areas seem slightly blurry, rather like a lens can separate foreground and background with different focal points. Others find material evidence and details of brush work convincing.
But between the time the unrestored painting was sold at an estate sale in 2005 for $10,000 and its arrival on the world scene as a long-lost “Leonardo” at the National Gallery in London in 2011, the painting had come to life with significant modern retouching.
If nothing else, the astonishing amount someone or some institution paid for this work (the buyer hasn’t been named) proves that with a handful of artists, Leonardo preeminent among them, any amount of authenticity is sufficient for marketers, salesmen and audiences who crave sacred objects. This is disconcerting to people who have trained themselves to think skeptically about attributions. Over the past 700 years or more, a lot of magnificent art has been produced that can’t be definitively ascribed to any one particular artist.
Sometimes works are by more than one artist; sometimes the artist’s name has simply been lost to history. Sometimes an apprentice, who painted a few details in a work largely by his master, becomes more famous than his teacher. In that case, which artist gets the credit? The measured way to think about this is: Focus on the art itself, and don’t ascribe mystical value to the attribution.
But the power of the brand, especially brands as well known and revered as Leonardo’s, inevitably wins out. A quasi-religious hysteria takes over, and a painting that possibly has some Leonardo in it becomes a sacred relic, something touched by the master.
Christie’s, which manipulated this sale with every resource at its disposal, manufacturing a public spectacle that was designed from the beginning to be a “viral” event, put the painting up for sale at one of its auctions of contemporary art, a field where the prices are usually higher, the bubble of belief more effervescent and the tendency to healthy skepticism more attenuated.
If it was purchased by a Western art museum (which seems unlikely given the price tag), then that institution will be heavily invested in continuing the promotion of its authenticity. If it was bought by an individual, the question will be: What did he or she actually pay for?
We are now in the age of post-mechanical reproduction, when the idea that there are “original” images and “copies” is barely sustainable. On the Internet, where most people live their intellectual lives, everything is a copy. And anyone can fabricate anything. Perhaps that explains why, in the rare case when a corporation like Christie’s can whip up a frenzy over an “original” painting by Leonardo, the prices go so crazy. What was being sold wasn’t a painting or an image or even an idea by Leonardo. It was a relic of physical touch.
For that, people are willing to do astonishing things, like pay $450 million, or travel across oceans and queue up for hours to stand momentarily at the back of a crowd of other people staring intently at a sad little painting orphaned inside a thick box of protective glass. If this putative Leonardo is destined for a museum, somewhere, someone is building a ridiculously secure, blast-proof case for it, which will be its reliquary and its coffin.