I first saw the Salvator Mundi on April 27, 2005. A longtime friend, an art historian and dealer in Italian Old Master paintings, brought it to the apartment I shared with my husband, Mario Modestini. He had just received it from a New Orleans auction house and was hoping that I would agree to restore it. As is now well known, the Salvator Mundi was later recognized as a lost work by Leonardo da Vinci, and in 2017 it became the most expensive painting ever sold, bringing in $450.3 million at auction at Christie’s. But it was Mario, in the last months before his death, who first recognized the power of this disquieting portrait of divinity—a persona unseeing, all-knowing, eternal, pitiless, like the universe itself. After all that has happened since that day in April—the sale, the debates over authenticity, the accusations of manipulation—I often wonder what Mario would say about the doubters.
As my husband was, I am a restorer of Old Master paintings. I am good at it and treat my responsibility with the utmost gravity. The restoration of a badly damaged painting, especially when it is by a very great artist, always arouses criticism, not least from oneself. It is, unavoidably, an interpretation, like a musical performance except some of the notes are missing. All you have to go on are the well-preserved areas of original paint. These are sacrosanct.