Crypto Mundi: Why Is a Controversial da Vinci Painting an NFT Darling?

There’s just something about the 'Salvator Mundi' that inspires creators to announce “exclusive” and “historic” drops.

Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi is in the news… again.

The now-iconic painting has made headlines on and off following its 2005 sale at the St. Charles Gallery auction house in New Orleans (purchase price: $1,175) for enduring contentious restorations and repeated questions of attribution. Its subsequent $450 million sale to Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman at a 2017 Christie’s auction made it the world’s most expensive painting—not to mention the most rapidly appreciating piece of art ever. Not long after, reporters doggedly dug into the mystery of why the de Ganay Salvator Mundi hung in the Louvre’s blockbuster 2019 da Vinci exhibition in the da Vinci painting’s stead.

Christie's Previews Leonardo Da Vinci's Salvator Mundi Prior To Auction
A member of staff poses with a painting by Leonardo da Vinci entitled ‘Salvator Mundi’ before it is auctioned in New York. Getty Images

Where is the Salvator Mundi today? Who knows. In late 2022, the Times reported that British art historian Martin Kemp said the Saudi government was building an art gallery in which to display the work, but in a follow up with The Art Newspaper, Kemp said, “I still have no incontrovertible evidence about the ownership or location of the painting.” Yet the mystery of its whereabouts hasn’t caused interest in the work to wane.

Christie’s employees take bids in 2017. AFP via Getty Images

Five years after Salvator Mundi went on the block, journalists were still writing about attribution issues, Christie’s historic marketing blitz and the chaos in the auction room. Earlier this year, the Salvator Mundi made headlines yet again as part of the dispute between Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev and Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier.

Now the pricey painting is back in the news because ElmonX, a company that specializes in the creation of licensed NFT art, is set to tokenize it. What that means, in brief, is that ElmonX, in partnership with Bridgeman Images, will reproduce the Salvator Mundi—in 3D with AR elements—and give it a unique identifier, which is what makes it non-fungible. The company will release 660 Original Salvator Mundi NFTs priced at £150 and 13 Artist Proof editions paired with matching physical museum-quality prints priced at £1100 on August 12.

ElmonX is set set to tokenize da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi’. Courtesy ElmonX

Why now? The more interesting question might be: why again? There’s something about this particular painting that inspires creators to announce “exclusive” and “historic” NFT drops and media outlets—including Observer—to cover them.

In October of 2021, for example, the infamous and prolific German art forger, Wolfgang Beltracchi, with help from Hansen Wang and the Hashmasks team, launched the web portal—a museum-like online space in which he displays tokenized incarnations of the Salvator Mundi as channeled through the styles of several of art’s reigning masters, including Van Gogh and Picasso. The full collection of minted NFTs encompasses 4,607 original Beltracchi works, which were sold in Dutch auctions with a starting price of 10,000 ETH and a minimum price of 3 ETH.

Former art forger Beltracchi
Wolfgang Beltracchi stands in his studio on Lake Lucerne in front of unfinished parts of his new project on ‘Salvator Mundi’. Photo by Sabine Dobel/picture alliance via Getty Images

Fast forward to March, when artist Elliott Arkin started selling the Real Salvator Mundi(TM) NFT for just $10 as part of his Real Salvator Mundi brand—a retail-slash-art-project that purports to be a commentary on art, entrepreneurialism and the commercial market. The project encompasses the Salvator Mundi Museum of Art in Brooklyn, which claims to have the “largest collection of artwork and ephemera” related to the painting, a store stocked with items emblazoned with the Salvator Mundi and a cryptocurrency called Mundicoin. Arkin released the NFT as a mintable batch of 450,000,000 with an opening minted total value of $4.5 billion (a not-so-subtle nod to the Christie’s auction).

SEE ALSO: ‘Savior For Sale: Da Vinci’s Lost Masterpiece?’ and Our Obsession With Scandal

In April of that year, cultural historian Ben Lewis, author of The Last Leonardo, minted Salvator Metaversi—a riff on the OG Mundi that has Christ gripping a short stack of hundred dollar bills—on OpenSea for 1.8 Ethereum. The subsequent sale netted him about £2600, which he donated to the Hendry family, who only took home about $700 after selling the painting. “I want to at least draw attention to the crazy excesses and injustices of the art market where families, who are unaware of the complexities of the art market, sell heirlooms for small change and receive no resale fees when the work turns out to be a sleeper,” Lewis told the Art Newspaper.

A confusing mishmash of images on a da Vinci painting
Pimptronot’s ‘Double Face Salvator Mundi’ NFT. Courtesy Pimptronot

Then the mysterious multimedia artist and EDM music producer Pimptronot got in on the Salvator Mundi NFT action with his Double Face Salvator Mundi—touted in press releases as potentially set to “become the most expensive NFT painting in the world.” Priced at 260,000 ETH (about $500 million at the time), proceeds from the sale were earmarked to fund the creation of homeless shelters in New York, but the lone bidders in the auction offered just 0.005 and 0.008 ETH. “This NFT is a signifier to the death of a sick society and the renaissance of something new,” said Pimptronot in a statement. “The artworld is often not transparent and values art only after the artist is dead.”

And it just keeps going from there. It isn’t that there aren’t already lots of Salvator Mundis on OpenSea and other platforms—there are, and they range from straight-up copy to bizarre reimaginings—but that the auctions and drops seem to attract an outsized amount of attention given the abundance of Salvator Mundi NFTs. Last year, Sequel Art launched a collection of 10,000 unique digital collectibles featuring the Salvator Mundi with various backgrounds, eye colors, hair colors and orb stand-ins. Arkin also announced the launch of his Salvator Munki series of 2022 works created using “proprietary algorithmic calculations,” and put Salvator Munki #1 up for auction with an opening bid of .1175 ETH (another nod to the real thing). It sold, but no further Munkis appear to have gone up for sale.

A cartoon of a Jesus monkey holding an orb
‘Salvator Munki #1’ went up for auction with an opening bid of .1175 ETH Courtesy the Real Salvator Mundi

This proliferation of not just da Vinci NFTs but semi-high profile Salvator Mundi NFTs might leave some scratching their heads, but there’s not much to unpack here. What makes art valuable is demand, and if NFT artists can ride the wave of demand created and still fueled by the historic Christie’s sale of what may or may not have been the work of Leonardo da Vinci, they will. What is ElmonX, which has also minted the Mona Lisa, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Rodin’s The Thinker and Monet’s Nympheas, offering that others aren’t? Beyond the right to display the high-res image and the accompanying physical? Not much, according to several critics on X, who point out that digitizing artists’ work as NFTs makes sense as a means of tracking provenance; otherwise, it’s just a cash grab.

On the other hand, perhaps high-profile digitization of the Old Masters’ works could lead to wider acceptance of NFTs as an art asset.

“It would be interesting to see whether there will be any future efforts to bring together these collectors for future community activations,” Alex Salnikov, chief strategy officer and co-founder of Rarible, told NFTgators. “These types of experiments, even if they may not generate significant trading volume, are important to the long-term growth of the ecosystem because they educate and onboard users to the world of NFTs.”

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Crypto Mundi: Why Is a Controversial da Vinci Painting an NFT Darling?