‘Salvator Mundi’ and the limits of certainty

16th January, 2020

Mona Lisa may be famously inscrutable, but “Salvator Mundi” has surely replaced her as Leonardo da Vinci’s most enigmatic work. It has been two years since it was reported that the long-lost painting had been sold to a Saudi prince as a gift to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, for an astonishing $450m — two and a half times the previous record for any painting sold at auction.

Since then the unveiling has been postponed without explanation, and the painting’s whereabouts are unknown: on a yacht, says one report; in secure storage in Switzerland, says another.

No doubt the mystery of its whereabouts will be resolved. The mystery of its provenance is deeper. In 2005, “Salvator Mundi” was bought for about $1,000 at an auction in New Orleans by two art dealers, Alexander Parish and Robert Simon. (Mr Parish later told Vulture that they had been willing to go as high as $10,000, but it proved unnecessary.)

On the surface, the painting was worth little: it was in very bad shape. But Messrs Parish and Simon thought it might be by a disciple of Leonardo; in which case it might easily be worth several hundred thousand dollars — a gamble worth taking. As a painting by Leonardo’s studio, with a touch or two by the master himself, it might have been worth $20m.

So what is it? Ben Lewis, author of The Last Leonardo, notes that the debate rages “over whether it belongs in the first division autograph Leonardo category or the second division Leonardo+Workshop category”. Apparently that is a $430m distinction. And the desire for clarity is not merely financial. When we gaze at a painting on a gallery wall, we like to know.

It is hard, too, to disentangle the time-scarred original work from its substantial restoration by Dianne Modestini — which, in turn, was influenced by the close inspection of known works by Leonardo.

Yet as the criminologist Federico Varese points out, it is curious that we insist on a binary distinction. We feel powerfully that the painting is either an autograph Leonardo, or it is not. As a matter of logic that may be true, but as a matter of practicality we do not know and we will never know. There is some evidence of Leonardo’s involvement, but the evidence is circumstantial. We are relying heavily on intuition — albeit the intuition of people with deep expertise. Regrettably but unsurprisingly, the experts differ.

This is partly a problem of knowledge: we cannot travel back in time to see who painted what. But it is also a problem of definition. Philosophers might recognise the “bald man paradox” here. Plucking out a single hair from a full head of hair does not produce a bald man. Keep going, however, and baldness will result. And yet it seems absurd to identify any particular hair as the crucial one that made the difference between baldness and non-baldness. Similarly with “Salvator Mundi”: how many brushstrokes from Leonardo does it take to distinguish a workshop piece from an autograph work?

So “Salvator Mundi” is the Schrödinger’s cat of paintings — perhaps one thing, perhaps another. We can’t know.

Schrödinger’s cat discomfited the Austrian physicist Ernst Schrödinger, for good reason. But to a statistician or a social scientist, this sort of irresolvable uncertainty is part of life.

I just tossed a coin. Did it come up heads or tails? One or the other, clearly. But even after the fact, if you haven’t seen the result it is not absurd to say that there is a 50 per cent chance of either outcome. And if I then put the coin back in my pocket without checking, 50-50 is the closest we will ever get to knowing.

We should be able to live with such fuzziness. When asking a question such as “who is the greatest ever Formula 1 driver?”, we know that we can have a fun argument — Lewis Hamilton, Michael Schumacher, Ayrton Senna, Juan Fangio? And we also know that the argument cannot be resolved.

But we forget this in other parts of life. Who would be the better UK prime minister, for example, Jeremy Corbyn or Boris Johnson? Which Democratic candidate would be most likely to defeat US president Donald Trump in the 2020 elections? Is it Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders or Pete Buttigieg? How serious a threat is climate change, and how drastic a change is required to deal with it?

The answers matter far more than the question of how much Leonardo contributed to “Salvator Mundi”, if he contributed at all. But we will never know for sure what the answers are.

One approach to all this fuzziness is to demand sharpness. I have often written admiringly about the work of Philip Tetlock, who has examined the problem of forecasting — a field dominated by vague prognostications — by asking forecasters to make verifiable predictions with deadlines.

But there are limits. The world defies our attempts to confine it with neat definitions.

It is not wrong to debate these vast questions of policy and politics. Indeed, it is vital that we do. But it is futile to expect a certain answer.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 6 December 2019.

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For more on the joys of ambiguity, try my book, Messy

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