NFT Twist in hidden “Leonardo” Painting Saga

A painting of a princess perhaps by the Old Master has been sold digitally. However, questions remain over its origin, the intrinsic value of NFT tokens, and who owns what.

What is the worth of an original Leonardo Da Vinci masterwork? What about a “Leonardo” whose genuineness is disputed? And what if the work is also hidden in a Swiss vault, untouchable to experts and the public, and the item on sale is frankly a digital copy that has been bought online and beamed onto a holographic screen covered in expensive crystal? Does it have any significance at all?

To that last question, the art world has given us a vibrant yes. Earlier this year, the pseudonymous collector @ModeratsArt bought an NFT of the purported da Vinci work La Bella Principessa. It is thought to portray Bianca Sforza, an illegitimate daughter of Ludovico Sforza, a member of the High Renaissance Milanese family, and cost more than $103,739 worth of the cryptocurrency ether through an auction on the NFT marketplace MakersPlace.

NFT or Not?

leonardo-da-vinci-painting-nft-sale
Leonardo da Vinci’s La Bella Principessa (1495-96) in a Swiss vault but the digital version has made its way

An NFT is something that resides on a publicly owned ledger called a blockchain. It allows the holder to brag rights over an image associated with the act, represented typically as a URL to wherever the image is kept online. In this case, the NFT also authorizes the holder, @ModeratsArt, to a crystal-encased physical rendering of the artwork.

Many digital copies of old works have been traded for large sums. In some matters, the physical original has even been eliminated so as to transfer its “essence” to the copy but this case is totally different.

However, Holoverse and Scripta Maneant, the two companies responsible for the sale, defined the NFT as the “first-ever verified Leonardo da Vinci NFT + HNFT i.e. the crystal-encased physically displayed copy on the market, La Bella Principessa’s genuineness has actually never been confirmed.

The painting was sold for $22,000 at a Christie’s auction in 1998 to an art dealer named Peter Silverman on behalf of an unknown collector. Silverman uplifted efforts to support his strong belief that the work was a long-lost Leonardo, resulting in a supportive book by art historian Martin Kemp titled La Bella Principessa: The Story of the New Masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci. The notorious UK art forger Shaun Greenhalgh, who served a prison punishment between 2007 and 2010, also asserted to be the author of the work.

Nevertheless, The Principessa has been kept under lock and key in a Swiss vault since 1998 and only a few individuals have had the opportunity to analyze it. Advanced “multispectral” scans by renowned art specialist Pascal Cotte of French company Lumière Technologies discovered a detail i.e. supposedly a fingerprint in 2009 and claimed the work to be of da Vinci but, also, nobody else has got a glimpse yet.

Matthew Landrus, Supernumerary Fellow in History at Oxford University mentions that hardly anyone has seen the work in person. As such, there are few academic views about it and there has been only a little access to Pascal Cotte’s scans of it. He also emphasizes that the drawing can only be truly comprehended in person and you have to look at textures, chalk, ink, the vellum, aging, surface marks, and incisions, among other things.

The work’s ownership is also nebulous. Caitlin Cruickshank, who placed the deal together for MakersPlace, mentions that the unnamed owner of the physical original, defined by the Italian publisher Scripta Maneant, was involved with the project and provided the “necessary authorizations.” She also says that the NFT itself was minted and originally owned by Holoverse, the digital art company behind the sale. The NFT was then transferred directly into the account of the purchaser. Cruickshank would not say whether the NFT was based on Cotte’s multispectral scan though she did mention that MakersPlace was in talks with Cotte on future projects as well.

Craig Palmer, the CEO of MakersPlace, mentions that the controversial history of the painting only adds to the NFT’s attraction, suggesting that this allows the principal players to profit from the mystery of the original without revealing it to researchers. Palmer also added that, as per its terms and conditions, MakersPlace has taken 15% of the profits.

It is difficult to say if it is right to define the NFT as “verified,” as Holoverse did in marketing materials. Cruickshank (being a former Old Masters expert at Sotheby’s) claims that the involvement of the owner in the deal, along with Kemp’s precise analyses and her own suspicion was justification enough.

This rather fast and loose interpretation of verification is familiar in the blockchain world, and reflects attempts by Walmart, in 2019, to “verify” the origin of its romaine lettuces through the Ethereum network. The basic notion was that a farmer would slap a QR code on lettuce, which would be rescanned at every point of the supply chain until it reached the supermarket. Consumers could then verify the fair-trade provenance with their phones.

But as with La Bella Principessa, verification of an item’s “provenance” is unessential if the physical original’s authenticity is disavowed. The nebulous “blockchain” presents no way of verifying whether a farmer’s produce truly is fair trade, nor whether work like La Bella Principessa is the genuine article.


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