Art Market
How to Frame a $100 Million Painting by Leonardo da Vinci
By Abigail Cain
Nov 3, 2017 5:29 pm
Courtesy of Lowy Antique Frames & Fine Art Restoration.

Courtesy of Lowy Antique Frames & Fine Art Restoration.

Few of us will ever get as close to a Leonardo da Vinci painting as Brad Shar. Vice president of Julius Lowy Frame and Restoring Company in New York, Shar oversaw the re-framing of a rare, rediscovered work by the Renaissance artist in 2011.

“It’s always interesting seeing a masterpiece like that in our premises,” he says, “because you’re seeing it essentially naked. Normally, you’d expect to see something like that under high security in a museum setting. When you see it with no barrier between you and the actual piece, it’s stunning.”

Titled Salvator Mundi, the work depicts Christ holding a gleaming orb in one hand and offering a blessing with the other. Since its public reveal in 2011, the painting has changed hands multiple times—from its original owners to Swiss dealer Yves Bouvier to Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev—and, along the way, it’s become the epicenter of a contentious, protracted lawsuit.

Now, it’s back at Christie’s, slated for auction on November 15th. Touted by the auction house as the only painting by Leonardo still in private hands, its estimated worth is $100 million. Lowy’s addition, a rare 16th-century Italian frame with delicate gold stenciling against a black finish, is itself valued between $40,000 and $50,000, says Shar.

Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi, ca. 1500. Courtesy of Lowy Antique Frames & Fine Art Restoration.

Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi, ca. 1500. Courtesy of Lowy Antique Frames & Fine Art Restoration.

Courtesy of Lowy Antique Frames & Fine Art Restoration.

Courtesy of Lowy Antique Frames & Fine Art Restoration.

Historic frames haven’t always been worth so much. For centuries, they served as a way for collectors to display their personal tastes, while older, out-of-fashion frames would frequently be discarded or given away. Even museums have engaged in this tradition. In 1799, after Napoleon assumed power, he ordered everything in the Louvre reframed; in 1978, then-Guggenheim director Thomas M. Messer transferred part of the museum’s collection to white shadow frames.

But by the 1990s, according to J. Paul Getty Museum frame conservator Gene Karraker, museums maintained the standard of framing their collections with historical accuracy. “The reasoning by the curators and the conservators is that when reframing was done, they wanted to fit the period of the frame with the period of the painting—either by country, by region, by date,” he told Artsy last year. “If there was a particular frame that an artist was known to use, that would influence the choice as well.”

Salvator Mundi was thought to have been commissioned by French king Louis XII and his wife, and was mostly likely painted in the early 1500s in Milan. So the staff at Lowy searched through its extensive inventory of period frames to find one that matched both the time and the place. They settled on a 16th-century cassetta (or “box”) frame, made of a soft fruit wood that’s native to Italy. Frames from this period are rare, notes Shar. Of the roughly 5,000 period frames in Lowy’s inventory (the largest such collection in the country, he says), only 20 or so were made in the 1500s.

Often, these historical frames aren’t a perfect fit for their new residents, so members of the Lowy team will cut the frame down to size—in the case of the Leonardo, a 26-by-18 1/2-inch wood panel. They also restore the frames, which have sometimes sustained damage over the centuries. But this particular cassetta frame needed little work. “It carries 90 percent of its original intended finish,” Shar explains. “It was in surprisingly excellent condition.”

Courtesy of Lowy Antique Frames & Fine Art Restoration.

Courtesy of Lowy Antique Frames & Fine Art Restoration.

This is not the first time Lowy’s antique frames have ended up at auctions. Although this case is different (Salvator Mundi was framed for a private owner, not for the auction house), Lowy and other frame shops are known to temporarily lend frames to auction houses; it simultaneously dresses up the paintings for auction and serves as free advertising for the framers. Lowy has framed a Charles Prendergast for Sotheby’s, and the company did slight restoration work on the frame for Edvard Munch’s The Scream when it went up for auction in 2011.  

Yet, despite their past work on masterpieces, this is the first Leonardo that the team has framed. “We get Picassos and Monets with some degree of frequency,” Shar says, “but [Leonardos], you know—they’re a little more rare.”

Abigail Cain is an Associate Editor at Artsy.