We Should Toss That $450M da Vinci into a Particle Accelerator

By Carl Engelking | November 17, 2017 3:57 pm


A portrait of the world’s most recognizable person, Jesus Christ, painted by an icon whose renown doesn’t trail too far behind, Leonardo da Vinci, on Wednesday sold at auction for $450.3 million, setting a new record for artistic largesse.

Only a handful of authentic da Vinci paintings exist today, and Salvator Mundi is the only one that could still be purchased by a deep-pocketed collector. Christie’s Auction House billed the work as “The Last da Vinci,” “the holy grail of our business.” And on Wednesday a perfect storm of salesmanship, extreme scarcity, and legendary celebrity inflated the price to unprecedented levels. Salvator Mundi is now the golden standard of value by which all other paintings will be measured.

Todd Levin, an art adviser, told the New York Times, “This was a thumping epic triumph of branding and desire over connoisseurship and reality.”

Consider that 60 years ago this exact same painting sold at auction for a mere £45—adjusted for inflation, that’s about $1,200 today. The price at the time reflected the painting’s dubious history; it was badly damaged and it appeared someone had attempted to restore it. The winning bidder got such a bargain price in 1958 because it wasn’t considered an authentic da Vinci, but instead a painting by one of his pupils.

Since then, the painting’s value has been volatile—fetching a price of $10,000 in 2005 from a group of art dealers, including Robert Simon. After deep analysis, documentation and restoration Simon announced it was unequivocally a da Vinci. It was purchased in 2013 for $127.5 million by Russian billionaire Dmitry E. Rybolovlev.


On top of it all, this painting has also been at the center of legal disputes. Leo is incredibly popular with forgers, and there are at least 20 faked Salvator Mundi paintings circulating. What’s more, the greats like da Vinci and Michelangelo ran workshops where they would often apply the first brushstrokes but left the rest to their assistants to finish.

Christie’s, for its part, said it was up-front about the checkered past of this particular painting, but firmly asserted that the experts have this one right. This is a da Vinci through and through.

“There is extraordinary consensus it is by Leonardo,” Nicholas Hall, the former co-chairman of old master paintings at Christie’s told the New York Times.

Regardless, art scholars and critics still fiercely debate whether da Vinci actually painted it. Jerry Saltz, an American art critic, is among the doubters, as he recently wrote in Vulture:

“I’m no art historian or any kind of expert in old masters. But I’ve looked at art for almost 50 years and one look at this painting tells me it’s no Leonardo. The painting is absolutely dead. Its surface is inert, varnished, lurid, scrubbed over, and repainted so many times that it looks simultaneously new and old.”

German art historian Frank Zöllner also threw some shade on the veracity of this particular painting in his book Leonardo da Vinci – the Complete Paintings and Drawings:

“Firstly, the badly damaged painting had to undergo very extensive restoration, which makes its original quality extremely difficult to assess. Secondly, the Salvator Mundi in its present state exhibits a strongly developed sfumato technique that corresponds more closely to the manner of a talented Leonardo pupil active in the 1520s than to the style of the master himself.”

With $450 million riding on the line, and for the sake of silencing the doubters, shouldn’t we throw some scientific muscle around and make this case bulletproof? Of course, the only person who can do it now is probably just fine taking experts at their word. But if such an endeavor were pursued, scientists would certainly have a battery of high-tech tools at their disposal.

 Particle Accelerator

“Portrait of a Woman” as it undergoes scanning with the synchrotron. (Credit: Thurrowgood et. al/ National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne)

In 2016, scientists in Australia used a synchrotron, a type of particle accelerator similar to the Large Hadron Collider, to blast an original Edgar Degas painting with a high-energy beam of photons. Known as X-ray fluorescence, the technique allows researchers to peer through layers of a painting to reveal hidden gems. In the case of Degas’ Portrait of a Woman, researchers revealed a second woman hidden beneath the first.

Forgers tend to paint over the top of used canvasses, and it was also common practice for artists to do this long ago. If a newer painting were revealed beneath one claimed to be much older, that could flag a fake. Or, if a famous artist only painted on fresh canvasses, any painting hidden beneath would signal a forgery. Applying this technique to the Salvator Mundi, could, perhaps, separate the brushstrokes of da Vinci from the people who attempted to restore the portrait—or reveal it was indeed a student and not the master.

Artificial Intelligence

Even the most learned forgery spotter is but a mere human. So Ahmed Elgammal, a professor of computer science at Rutgers University, developed an artificial intelligence system that can recognize an artist based on their individual strokes.

Elgammal developed a method inspired by Maurits Michel van Dantzig’s “Pictology” methodology, which distinguishes artists by their stroke shape, tone, length, direction and pressure.


Examples of stroke extraction by our system: Top: Picasso, Schiele, Bottom: Matisse, Picasso. (Courtesy: Ahmed Elgammal)

“These little strokes, and the way they evolved, are unintentional signatures of the artist. They are very hard to replicate,” says Elgammal.

These unique signatures are also very difficult to spot with the human eye, which attests to the success of forgers. So Elgammal trained an artificial neural network by feeding it a collection of some 300 drawings, or roughly 80,000 individual strokes, from iconic artists who varied in style. Their experiments showed that the system could correctly identify the techniques of masters like Picasso and Mattise 80 percent of the time. Then, they tried to fool their system with forgeries, but it identified fakes with 100 percent accuracy.

One of the knocks on Salvator Mundi is that the brushstrokes don’t look like da Vinci’s, but rather a pupil’s. Perhaps a well-trained computer could deflate this argument.

Infrared Reflectography

(Credit: The University of Glasgow)

Most artists’ don’t whip out masterpieces without a little planning. Like a home-builder, they construct a frame and add to it. In art parlance, these initial markings are known as underdrawings, and artists tend to develop a marking style that’s unique to them. Unfortunately, the finished product masks them from the naked eye.

But using infrared reflectography, art scientists can see what’s below the surface. That’s because infrared light can penetrate the layers of varnish and pigment to reach the drawings beneath. When the light hits the canvas, it’s reflected back into a specialized camera and produces an image of the underdrawings.

Mass Spectrometry

This technique is used to determine the composition of pigments used in a painting. The molecular composition of paints has changed over the centuries, and if there are chemicals in a work of art that wouldn’t have existed at the time it was created…a seller has explaining to do.

A mass spectrometer is a specialized device that sorts ions based on their mass-to-charge ratio. Then, after obtaining the molecular masses present in pigments, researchers can match them to the known masses of elements or molecules to elucidate the composition of a paint or varnish.

Blockchain and DNA

It’s impossible to know which current artists will be revered like da Vinci in 500 years, but identifying the artist will certainly be easier. For new paintings, the Global Centre for Innovation at the State University of New York at Albany developed a way for artists to insert a bit of synthetic genetic code into the still-wet paint of their masterpiece. Each piece of DNA is then logged into a database.

The DNA becomes entwined with the medium, so it’s impossible to move. To verify a painting, art dealers run a customized scanner over the canvas.

The art world is also beginning to embrace the technology underlying Bitcoin to track provenance. The blockchain is an open ledger of individual transaction records. Every single transaction produces a timestamp that links to the previous one, building a verifiable and hack-proof record. For art dealers, this is a fast and easy way to verify a chain of ownership.

Just a Piece of the Puzzle

Regardless how of deeply the art world embraces technology, it can only take it so far. Verifying a work of art is a three-pronged challenge.

  • Provenance: Authenticators need to build a verifiable record of ownership history—who had it and when?
  • Connoisseurship: An art expert needs to look at the painting to ensure it conforms to the style of an artist.
  • Dating: Determining when it was created.

“Scientific technology is helpful in terms of deciding if something is properly dated, but it can’t say whose hand created it,” says Irina Tarsis, found and director of the Center for Art Law.

Ultimately, it’s a combination of these three factors can build quite a compelling case for attributing a particular work of art to its creator. Still, even with extreme diligence, authenticating a masterpiece is still an educated guess—a very educated one at that.

By 2026, it’s anticipated that the wealthiest of the wealthy around the world will drop $2.7 trillion on art. Sophisticated technologies could help ensure it’s money well spent.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts
  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    …1) Name another da Vinci painting full face and body on.
    …2) da Vinci was an optics groupie. There is no optical distortion of the robe seen through the solid transparent orb.
    …3) Based on hand length the orb is 5.22 inches in diameter, One doubts Venice could anneal and fabricate such. Soda lime? 1223 cm³, d = 2.53 g/cm³, 3.1 kg or 6.8 lbs.
    …4) Look at the flecks in the orb. That is rock crystal, 2.648 g/cm³ about 7 pounds of shaped single crystal quartz. It is worth a fortune.
    …5) Single crystal quartz is birefringent. da Vinci would have been seduced by the image distortion versus rotation.

    Accelerator? Optical microscope to observe pigment crystal form. IR microscope to identify the pigments, UV to see if it fluoresces. X-ray fluorescence to check for lead and cobalt soaps, linseed oil curing catalysts. Look for fallout isotopes.

    • Erik Bosma

      That’s the main thing that bugs me about this painting – the lack of distortion behind the crystal globe. It looks more like he’s holding a circular piece of glass.
      I also don’t care for the flatness of the painting however, that may be a result of all the repair work. Of course, why didn’t all that repair work depreciate the value? So it’s either fake or damaged from repair.
      I should recuse myself from this criticism because I am of Dutch ancestry and as far as I’m concerned Rembrandt is a head and shoulders above anyone.

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        No chest hair. Sephardic Jews are a swarthy furry lot, and the males more so. His dad is never depicted fair and clean-shaven, always swarthy and hirsuite.

        It is a poor painting of an effeminate male, consistent with the uncallused and unscarred manicured hands. A carpenter? The anatomy of the upright hand doesn’t work for me. My fingers and wrist don’t do that.

        • Erik Bosma

          So we’re agreed then, it’s a phoney. Besides,it doesn’t even look like a Day Vinci. Also the style is different. Sure glad I stopped my bidding at $300 mill. Whew! Close call.

          • OWilson

            Modern Art
            Emperors New Clothes!

            Nothing there, but a global financial enterprise, nevertheless!

    • Discuss Much

      I appreciate your technical analysis.

      Concerning 2) I think a statement was being made by the painter, using the globe’s lack of optical inversion: “Jesus causes the world (reality, science) to be upright.”

      3 – 5) Assuming my belief in “statement”, and yours as to annealing not being within Venice’s reach, a smaller globe, one that could have been produced through known techniques, would have been too small for the painting’s scale. The statement wouldn’t have been discernible. So the painter simply scaled up the globe without the necessity of actually holding a full size corpus.

  • Jenny H

    Most recognisable person?? I don’t think so. Nobody actually knows what the Jesus of the Bible looked like, no descriptions of him, and doubtful whether or not he really existed. Common sense though tells us he should look much like a Semite from about 1 – 34 CE– not a vapid European as he is generally portrayed in Mediaeval paintings and Sunday school tracts.

    • Jenny H

      He also seems blind in his right eye.

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        It looks like a very mortal cataract.

    • Jason Max

      Think of it as recognizable in terms of the character, not the actual accurate depiction of a real person. Jesus is recognizable in the same sense that Santa Clause or Superman are recognizable.

      It kinda doesn’t matter if Jesus really existed of if our depictions of him are accurate. Billions and billions of people would instantly recognize the characterization of Jesus that we’re used to seeing. I think that’s enough to make the article’s statement accurate.

    • Maia

      Yes, what’s authentic about a European Jesus? And I agree that the “crystal ball” looks more like a flat glass disk. Interesting neckline, though…

  • OWilson

    It’s no Venus de Milo, that’s for sure!

    • Discuss Much

      What’s inauthentic about the Shroud?

      • OWilson

        I wouldn’t want to get into a discussion about the authenticity of a piece of old cloth with a true believer.

        Like the painting above it has “Kardashian value”.

        No intrinsic value, just famous for being famous! :)

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        An elliptic geometry face (positive Gaussian curvature) cannot project upon a plane geometry surface (zero Gaussian curvature) absent distortion, cutting, or folding. The Shroud of Turin is a trivial fake – a flat sculpture heated in an oven (less than 232 °C) then draped with a linen cloth. High bright points burned dark with contact, low dark areas did not discolor the cloth for lack of proximity. A photographic negative results.

        White denim, some plaster of Paris, a kitchen oven. A Chinese or Korean face is a fine template for casting both positive and negative image life mask templates (taken in alginate or silicone – never plaster on skin!). It’s a great high school science project.

        European and West Asian faces with their prominent noses and a narrow curvature don’t work.

  • polistra24

    The distinction between “real artists” and “forgers” is meaningless. Both performed remarkably skilled and careful creative work, using previous work as an inspiration. Both are doing what God wants us to do.

    If a rich idiot wants to waste huge amounts of money on a big rectangle covered in oil, why should we get in the way? The idiot gets satisfaction from being a big spender, not from making or doing anything. Now a large part of his money has moved into commercial circles where it might serve a better purpose.

  • http://pathoskeptic.com Timo Ylhäinen

    Its an old picture. Who cares, really.

    • bwana


  • truffes_du_jour

    “… da Vinci and Michelangelo ran workshops where they would often apply the first brushstrokes but left the rest to their assistants to finish.”
    True for Leo, not so for Mike. In any case Leo’s hand yields unmatched quality. Just compare the Louvre Virgin of the Rocks with the lifeless crust by Ambrogio de Predis at the NG in London. The Salvator Mundi is indeed dull, but the best preserved parts, the hands and the globe, are painted like only Leo could.

  • bwana

    The value of art is ridiculous. It is simply a painting or a sculpture or something similar. I see no actual value other than the recovery of cost and a bit of profit. Paying $450 million or $10 million or $10,000 for a painting is utterly insanity!! Another of human’s foibles…

  • Making America Great Again

    Looks like Mona Lisa before the transgender was complete.

    Anyway, a fool and his money…….

    • okiejoe

      … are very popular.

  • StanChaz

    450 million – such incongruity!

    I myself am not religious, thank god,
    but I wonder what Christ himself would have said about this
    particularly gross exhibition of wealth by the wealthiest
    – all while exploiting his imagined image.

    Unfortunately, over the years the Church he founded became an
    all-too-human contradiction of his teachings and philosophy in so many ways.

    But he repeatedly cautioned otherwise, in no uncertain terms:
    “And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,
    than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God”.

    Well I guess there’s lots of very fat and very self-indulgent camels to be found wandering around Christ -ie’s Auction House ….which itself is so inappropriately named.

  • Maia

    Inquiring minds want to know: why was the specialized detector called “Maia”?


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