Fiona Bruce on Leonardo’s missing masterpiece

The host of Da Vinci: the Lost Treasure comes face to face with possibly the world's most valuable painting

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Many people dream at some point of finding a lost masterpiece. I see them at every Antiques Roadshow. But few allow themselves to dream of finding a Leonardo. There are between 14 and 17 surviving paintings by him (depending on how fast and loose you play with accreditation) so to find a new one is akin to finding a new planet.

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But as I stood in the living room of a New York brownstone – location a strictly guarded secret – I found myself looking at what the handful of experts allowed to see it believe is a new Leonardo. If they are right, it’s the discovery of lifetime, a painting by the greatest master of them all.

It’s called Salvator Mundi, saviour of the world, an image of Christ holding a crystal globe in his left hand. As I opened the door into the living room, I didn’t know what to expect; like most of us I’ve only ever seen works by Leonardo da Vinci in a crowded gallery, at least ten people between me and the painting, plus thick glass and security guards.

I saw an image hanging above the fireplace in an ordinary frame with the veils or layers of paint that give Leonardo’s works such subtlety, the familiar androgyny of his angels and saints. The face had an intensity, the gaze a strength that was almost intimidating.

The story of how this painting got here, seemingly appearing out of nowhere, is one of real mystery and intrigue. At one stage it was in the collection of Charles I, that first great royal art collector. But a century or so later it seemed to have disappeared, lost from view.

Skip forward to 1958, and a painting with the same name but little other similarity is sold from a private collection for £45. Fast forward a little more and the new owner of the painting decides to have it cleaned to see if a more attractive one lies beneath. At this point the image is of a crudely painted Christ with eyebrows that look as if they’ve been drawn on with a felt tip and a beard that looks like something out of a joke shop.

I asked the woman given the task, restorer Dianne Modestini, how she went about it. It’s not exactly hi-tech, at least not to begin with; she used a chopstick with some cottonwool round the end, dipped it into solvent and gently began to wipe the thick layers of varnish and overpaint off the painting. The solvent won’t remove paint that is centuries old, baked rock hard by the years, but will lift off anything more recent.

A bit of spit comes in handy too (apparently it’s all about the enzymes) to loosen any filler that’s been used to disguise the cracks in the wood. As she worked her way closer and closer to the original image, she began to wonder about the artist. The technique, the expertise, the sheer skill were like nothing she’d ever come across before.

Take the crystal globe held in Christ’s left hand, for example. Every little fleck and imperfection in the crystal is lovingly recreated, each one reflecting and refracting the light. In the fine embroidery on the clothes, each thread passes over and under the other threads and the light and shadow change accordingly.

Dianne didn’t let herself believe it could be the work of Leonardo. “I didn’t dare,” she said. “I’d never have carried on. I wouldn’t have dared to touch it.”

With the help of x-rays and infra red light, the secrets of the painting began to reveal themselves; a pentimento or artistic second thought was discovered – the holy grail for anyone trying to prove a work’s authenticity. X-ray showed that the painter had tried one position for Christ’s thumb before changing his mind, painting over it and settling for the version we see in the picture now.

Anyone copying an image paints what he sees with little hesitation, but an artist who is starting from scratch works his picture out as he goes along, changes it, adapts it – and that’s when you find a pentimento.

Dianne described the moment when she became convinced that she had spent the past four years cleaning and restoring a work by the world’s most brilliant and extraordinary artist. It was, she said, the thrill not only of her professional life but of her personal life as well.

And what will happen to the painting now? It will be the main draw at the Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery in London, where the crowds will jostle to get a glimpse of it. And it’s highly likely to go up for sale one day. The price tag will be off the scale. It’s currently valued at £125 million, even in these precarious financial times. I hope it’s bought by a museum rather than a Russian oligarch; otherwise this near miraculous discovery will vanish again.

But in the meantime, I won’t be going with the crowds to look at it in the National Gallery. I’ve had my own private viewing in the most humble of settings, over a fireplace in someone’s living room, just me and it. It’s something I will never forget, something I will tell my grandchildren.

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Da Vinci: the Lost Treasure is at 9pm tonight on BBC1