The future of provenance

Patchwork Provenance of the World’s Most Expensive Painting Underscores the Need for Better Record Keeping

The case of Salvator Mundi: is provenance as it is failing?

Leonardo da Vinci was a cryptic figure during his lifetime, but hundreds of years after his death questions remain about what he did and did not paint. Known simply as Leonardo, the Renaissance master was also a known procrastinator, infamous for not finishing many of his paintings and leaving the tedious final touches to an army of students and assistants. Today, only fifteen of his paintings survive, but the recent controversy surrounding the Salvator Mundi’s patchwork provenance has led many critics and art historians to re-assert the importance of documented provenance.

The Salvator Mundi depicts Jesus Christ as the saviour of the world and earned a world-record £350 million (USD $450) at a Christie’s auction in November 2017—but experts now believe the painting might not have been painted by Leonardo after all.

The case of Salvator Mundi

Last year, The Wall Street Journal reported new details that linked the painting—which had previously owned by British kings and Russian oligarchs—to an obscure collection in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. As news of these new details quickly spread online, commentators and critics were quick to point out the sketchy, patchwork provenance of the paintings, which today is owned by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The gaps and overlaps in its ownership have been the subject of scrutiny among art historians and Leonardo experts alike, with many even questioning the painting’s attribution to Leonardo himself.

In 2013, only two years after the painting went on show at the National Gallery in London (which convened a panel of experts that ‘authenticated’ it as a Leonardo original), it was then sold by the two mid-table New York dealers, Robert Simon and Alex Parish, who allegedly bought it in 2005 on a hunch, to a Swiss middleman, who promptly resold it to the Russian oligarch, Dmitry Rybolovlev, for £98.4 million (USD $127.5 m),

Following critical comments in a new book published this year by Ben Lewis entitled The Last Leonardo, questions have been swirling about whether the work has been misidentified as a Leonardo original.

The cover of Ben Lewis “The Last Leonardo”

Are current provenance mechanisms enough?

Lewis’s examination of the provenance of the Salvator Mundi sheds ample skepticism on allegations that it was once in the collection of Charles I, and that it is listed in an inventory of 1650 as “a peece [picture] of Christ done by Leonard.” The fact that it was supposedly owned by Charles I, was in turn used by the National Gallery and Christie’s catalogues to assert it as an original Leonardo.

According to a report by Charles Nicholl earlier this month in The Guardian, “the question of provenance is complicated by the existence of several other paintings with the Salvator iconography, some very plausibly attributed to pupils and imitators of Leonardo.”

Nicholl’s report goes on to state that one of these, in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, “was definitely in the royal collection, as it bears the stamp CR (Carolus Rex) on the back of the panel. This painting, attributed to Giampietrino, may well be the ‘peece’ itemised in 1650,” questioning whether the painting is in fact an original.

Innovation in art provenance

Following all the Salvator Mundi speculation can be dizzying, though it does highlight the need for due-diligence, record keeping and provenance, especially with respect to works of art that have considerable value.

Provenance is today undergoing transformation and innovation, thanks in large measure to international standards for art object identification that bring together the best of already existing internet technology and infrastructure.

At .ART, we have introduced a digital provenance system called Digital Twin, with the idea of making art more securable and preventing controversies like the one surrounding the Salvator Mundi from taking place.

15 years ago, the Getty Foundation created a standard for art object identification, which includes information like author, medium, dimensions, etc. This standard is free and is used by such organisations like UNESCO, FBI, Scotland Yard, and Interpol. By negotiating a unique agreement with ICANN, the coordinating body for the whole Internet, .ART has taken steps towards integrating the Getty Foundation’s “Object ID” into our domain registration forms, allowing for all this descriptive information to be “sealed” in a domain name as if it was a time capsule.

The long-term effect of implementing Certifying Domains may be called democratisation, or mass marketisation of art, which we believe will also provide instruments and infrastructure that will ultimately increase the financial turnover in the world of art, and stream more of it towards living artists, collectors and curators, while also providing an added layer of security and provenance to works of historical repute.

Ultimately, the mission of .ART is to become an ecosystem for various technological solutions and services for marketing and distribution, provenance and record keeping, introducing streamlined principals that will make art more accessible and transparent for all.

Also published on Medium.