A Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece which was valued just over $100m ten years ago is now being touted as the first painting in the world that could fetch $1bn at auction.
The staggering 10-figure price tag is viewed in art circles as entirely possible, following the sale of Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi for a world record $591m.
Of the 20 Leonardo Da Vinci paintings thought to be in existence, all except two are held by the world’s most famous and powerful art museums.
One of those works, Madonna of the Yarnwinder, painted by Leonardo in the early 16th century, is privately owned by one of Britain’s wealthiest aristocrats – Richard Scott, the 10th Duke of Buccleuch.
The art world is now wondering if the duke, who is Scotland’s largest landowner, will be tempted to put his prized treasure on the auction block.
The Madonna of the Yarnwinder, a small 48cm x 37cm canvas featuring a seated Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus, has been a possession in the duke’s family for around 250 years.
However, in 2003 the painting went missing for four years, after two men armed with a knife and axe stole it from the duke’s Drumlanrig Castle, near Dumfries. Drumlanrig Castle was used as a set in the popular British-American television drama series, Outlander.
The two men had posed as tourists wanting to see the duke’s collection of paintings, which is thought to be the UK’s most valuable private holding.
Alison Russell, an 18-year-old tour guide, described how the art thieves had been waiting outside the castle for the doors to open, one morning in August 2003.
The pair ignored all the other paintings and galleries inside the castle, and instead rushed Ms Russell towards the room where the duke’s prized centrepiece was hung.
Once there, one of the men grabbed her and held a knife to her throat. The other stood guard by the painting with an axe, warning Ms Russell’s co-workers to stay away.
They removed the Leonardo painting from the wall, and escaped out a window.
The biggest art theft in British history remained an unsolved mystery until 2007 when a man named Marshall Ronald contacted the duke, saying he knew where the Leonardo was and could arrange its return for a fee of almost $10m.
That led to two undercover police officers, who posed as an art expert and the duke’s representative, meeting with Ronald, an English lawyer.
It was agreed the Leonardo would be taken to a law firm in Glasgow, where a second meeting was raided by police and the painting returned to the Duke of Buccleuch.
The Madonna of the Yarnwinder is currently on loan to the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh.
Jaynie Anderson, a professor of fine arts at the University of Melbourne, said Leonardo’s Madonna of the Yarnwinder was a “much more beautiful painting” than the Salvator Mundi.
The Salvator Mundi, showing Christ dressed in Renaissance-style robes holding a crystal sphere, was significantly damaged, and it had required extensive restoration work at a New York City studio.
“I’m amazed at the price the Salvator Mundi went for,” Professor Anderson said.
“The face is very damaged. And I think the fact that the face of Christ is damaged sort of inhibits you really liking the picture.”
Some art critics had also doubted the authenticity of Salvator Mundi in the lead up to last month’s Christie’s auction. In contrast, Professor Anderson said the provenance of Leonardo’s Madonna of the Yarnwinder was “impeccable”.
“It is an important composition and a very interesting proposition for auction,” Professor Anderson said.
“If it went up for sale I think it could go for much more than the Salvator Mundi. It is a much more beautiful painting, a far more sexy painting.”
An auction would inevitably attract big money bidders from Chinese billionaires, Russian oligarchs and Middle East royals.
However, such is the rarity and allure of the Madonna of the Yarnwinder, Professor Anderson believed American billionaires and museums could also be prompted into action.
“There is competition between elite museums to make the best acquisitions,” Professor Anderson said.
“The fact it is now on loan to the National Gallery of Scotland might mean that the Duke of Buccleuch intends to gift it to them when he dies. But that is an awful lot of money, so he is probably thinking about it. And if he isn’t, the big auction houses like Christie’s most certainly will be.”
As well as the scarcity of Leonardo’s works, Professor Anderson said the Italian artist, who was born in 1452, had never gone out of fashion – unlike other famous painters.
“Leonardo is very sympathetic. Everybody is fascinated with him as a personality,” Professor Anderson said.
Professor Anderson, an expert in Italian Renaissance art, described Leonardo as a melancholic, neurotic and beautiful man, and likened his appeal to Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
“When he walked down the street his contemporaries said you couldn’t stop staring at him.”
Leonardo was not a prolific painter, but he was constantly drawing and writing, she added.
“Contemporaries describe him working on The Last Supper, and how he spent ages just staring at it and not doing anything.”
It was confirmed later that Salvator Mundi will hang at The Louvre in Abu Dhabi. There is a second version of the Madonna of the Yarnwinder, which is likely the only other Leonardo da Vinci painting in private hands. The identity of the owner is unknown, but it is believed to be an American collector.