Inside Wealth

Da Vinci's 'Salvator Mundi' painting took a winding 60-year path from under $200 to a record-breaking $450 million

Key Points
  • Before the world discovered its provenance, Da Vinci's 'Salvator Mundi' once sold for as little as $200, according to an art dealer.
  • Robert Simon and his business partner purchased the masterpiece on the cheap from an estate sale in 2005, after which it was restored and steadily increased in value.
  • "How many people in the world can claim they spent the night alone with a da Vinci in their living room," Simon told CNBC.
Da Vinci painting sells for $450 million, buyer unknown
Da Vinci painting sells for $450 million, buyer unknown

Last week, Leonardo da Vinci's "Salvator Mundi" became the most expensive work of art ever sold, going for $450 million at Christie's.

Auctioned off to an unknown buyer on the phone after a protracted, 19 minute bidding war, the masterpiece's road to fetching nearly half a billion dollars actually began in 1958 — when it originally sold for less than $200, an art dealer who once owned the piece told CNBC.

After the 1950's, "Salvator Mundi's" trail went cold until around 2005, when art dealers Alex Parish and Robert Simon bought it an estate sale in New Orleans for $10,000.

At the time, Simon, who runs Robert Simon Fine Arts on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, thought the painting was a diamond in the rough. That said, he had no inkling it was an actual da Vinci.

"It appeared to be a damaged, but worthy Renaissance-era work," Simon told CNBC last week.

"I thought it was beautiful but battered, and greatly overpainted. In my wildest imagination I would never have thought it was a da Vinci," he added. "Perhaps, if we were very, very lucky, it would be attributable to one of his peers."

Simon and Parish enlisted noted New York University paintings conservator Dianne Dwyer Modestini to work on the restoration. A few years into a laborious process, Simon had a moment of revelation.

"Once the layer ancient paint were scraped down and the original work started to emerge, this magical feeling took hold. I knew this was the real deal" Simon exclaimed. "Seconds later, those thoughts turned to fear! I mean, now I have a bona fide da Vinci on my hands, how the heck do I keep it safe?"

Throughout the restoration, Dwyer Modestini had simply kept the 17 X 15 inch painting in her studio each night. Ultimately, they decided to place the work in a locked safe—and later, an off-site storage locker which caters to the high end art world.

Except for the one night it spent in Simon's Manhattan apartment.

"This was in 2008, and I was flying to London the next morning to meet with da Vinci experts. So the safest thing to do was prop it up on my big leather couch," he told CNBC.

By 2011, Simon and Parish had met with some of the world's leading authorities on the Renaissance masters, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery in London. That same year, the National Gallery in Washington D.C. exhibited it as an official da Vinci work.

With full attribution under their wings, the consortium shopped around interested buyers, finally selling the work to Yves Bouvier, a Swiss art dealer, for a whopping $80 million dollars.

Within a year, Bouvier flipped the work to Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev for $127 million, who then turned to Christie's to facilitate this week's blockbuster sale. Simon told CNBC he watched the hammer drop at $450 million with awe and pride, and not a single regret of lost profits.

"It was an honor to discover it. Nobody believed us for a very long time," he said. "My career and reputation was staked on this painting. Critics called me a fraud. But no longer: I can hold my head up high."

Simon added: "Plus, how many people in the world can claim they spent the night alone with a da Vinci in their living room?"