Finder Of Lost Da Vinci To Tell His Tale At Wadsworth Atheneum

For three years, starting in 2008, New York art dealer Robert Simon sat on the art world’s most stunning secret. The cat got out of the bag in 2011: A painting Simon and an associate had purchased for less than $10,000 at an estate auction was actually a long-lost masterpiece by Leonardo Da Vinci.

Simon will tell the story of that painting’s discovery and acquisition — and the revelation that it was the original “Salvator Mundi” by the Italian Renaissance master — at a talk on Feb. 23 at Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford.

“We both understood that it was related to the lost painting by him. There are known to exist many copies. That it would turn out to be the original was not something we entertained. It was a nutty idea,” Simon says during a phone interview from New York. “We all dream about these things. You hear stories once in a while about buying a frame in an antique shop and taking off the backing and finding an original copy of the Declaration of Independence, but it usually doesn’t work out that way.”

Simon’s saga began in 2005. He and a friend — both experts on the Italian Renaissance — heard about a painting of Jesus Christ being sold at the estate sale, reportedly in New Orleans. (Simon is contractually forbidden to state exactly where he bought it and how much he paid for it.) They two decided it was worth buying as a possible copy of Da Vinci’s lost work.

“I have a photograph of it hanging in the house of the deceased. … They weren’t big art collectors, just ordinary people who wanted a nice picture of Christ,” he says. “It looked like it could well be of the period of Leonardo, hopefully by one of his very talented pupils. That was enough to make us want to bid on the painting.”

Upon bringing the painting back to New York, he showed it two conservator friends – Mario and Dianne Modestini – who did a test-clean. The Modestinis discovered a pentimento – a preliminary painting over-painted by the artist – that was not reflected in any of the copies of Salvator Mundi.

“There was only one explanation. This painting was the original version of the composition and all the others were copies,” Simon says. “That meant only one thing. Leonardo painted this picture.”

In 2008, several top Leonardo experts conferred and decided that the painting was an original Leonardo. Between that time and the painting’s exhibition at the National Gallery in London in 2011, Simon was obligated to keep the news under wraps.

Since the 2011 exhibit in London, the painting has been sold twice. In 2013, it was sold by Simon and his associates at Sotheby’s for reportedly about $75 million. That buyer, a Swiss art dealer, later sold the piece to a Russian collector. Last November, Salvator Mundi was sold at Christie’s for $450,312,500, the highest price ever paid for a painting. The buyer was Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism. It will be on exhibit at an unspecified future date at the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

The discovery changed his life, says Simon.

“I’m a quiet, scholarly art dealer known to few people. All of a sudden I became known. That is good in that more people refer to me and come to my gallery. On the other hand everybody who thinks he has a Leonardo Da Vinci painting writes me. I receive at least one a week. … Something they got at a flea market, something inherited, something their great uncle said is a great painting that will pay for your college. People think I can turn anything into a masterpiece.”

ROBERT SIMON will speak at Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main St. in Hartford, on Feb. 23 at 6 p.m. Admission is $35, seating first come, first served. The $250 VIP Package includes valet parking, preferred seating and a post-lecture dinner with Simon. Limited quantities available. thewadsworrth.org.

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