A rediscovered painting by Leonardo da Vinci, Christ as Salvator Mundi (c. 1499), has been sitting in the Dallas Museum of Art since earlier this year when new director Maxwell Anderson brought it to the museum to see if he could raise enough money to purchase the work. During an interview Monday, Anderson said that the DMA has made an offer on the painting and will soon learn if that unknown dollar amount is acceptable to its unidentified dealers.
If the DMA acquires the da Vinci, it would make the museum one of only two in the United States (along with the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.) to have a work by the Renaissance master on public view.
“When I brought it to the board’s attention as far back as March, [DMA trustee] Deedie [Rose] said, ‘That is so exciting to have that here, but there is no way we could conceive of acquiring it,’” Anderson said. “Then tens of millions of dollars later, and we made a very reasonable offer. But there are certain things you can’t control.”
Among those external factors include recent transactions in the art market that may affect the perceived value of the da Vinci, which has been estimated by some to be worthy of fetching upwards of $200 million.
“When a Raphael drawing sells for $47.8 million, if I were the owners I’d be looking at that,” Anderson said. “I’d be looking at all other factors and stimuli. In a situation like this, you put together a war chest and you make an offer. And if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.”
But bringing the da Vinci to the DMA, Anderson added, was not only about considering the painting for permanent acquisition. It was a way for the new director to test and challenge the appetites of local patorns.
“It was for sale and this was Dallas, and I thought, what a great way to learn about Dallas,” he said. “Maybe we can buy this thing. Let’s find out. And I was thrilled by how many people both on the board and not on the board that stepped forward with generous commitments.”
Some of the committments, the director added, have come from potential donors who are not currently active with the DMA, but whom he says are now more engaged with the museum and its activities.
Having the painting in the museum for all these months was also its own reward, Anderson said.
“It is one thing when you are showing it to people who are capable of supporting its acquisition,” he said. “But when you inviting all the guards and custodians and clerical help and curators and everyone else and they are lined up, it reminds them that that is what our mission is: educational, inspirational.”
Some critics, however, have argued that the purchasing the da Vinci doesn’t make much sense for a museum like the DMA, which doesn’t have a collection of Old Masters and for whom the piece would be the lone representation of a style and era of art sitting within a European painting collection that is more representative of painting from the 18th through 20th centuries. Speaking to Art in America this summer, old master dealer Richard Feigen said da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi isn’t a particularly significant work by the Renaissance painter.
“For me Dallas would make a more serious splash by going after several lesser priced paintings in very fine condition,” Feigen told Art in America. “It would be cause for chatter in the museum world if Dallas bought eight or 10 really serious old master paintings, a field where they had not previously ventured.”
The high dollar amount attached to the painting has also prompted some to question the practicality of the the DMA’s flirtations with purchasing such an art work, no matter the prestige that could come with it. But Anderson dismissed such criticism, saying that the donor base that would support purchasing a painting by Leonardo da Vinci is different than one that would, for example, support the long-discussed expansion to the museum.
“That picture has a relevance to the city that goes far beyond the needs of the museum,” Anderson said.
Ultimately, whether the DMA’s financial offer for the painting is accepted or not, having it at the museum and raising a reasonable offer for its acquisition has already had the effect intended by the new director on the art institution.
“It raised the bar of what the art of the possible at the DMA should be,” Anderson said.