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Former Met director sparks Instagram spat over $450m Leonardo da Vinci

Thomas Campbell posted an image of the Salvator Mundi before conservation, triggering a row with its former co-owner Robert Simon and Christie’s Loic Gouzer

Following the $450.3m sale of the Salvator Mundi at Christie’s New York last week, Thomas Campbell, the former director and chief executive of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, has sparked controversy after posting an image on Instagram of the painting before restoration.

Below the image of the Leonardo da Vinci, Campbell, who left the Met at the end of June, wrote the caption “450 million dollars?! Hope the buyer understands conservation issues…” followed by “#readthesmallprint”.

Campbell's account @thomaspcampbell has 37,400 Instagram followers and, at the time of writing, the post had more than 2,800 likes. But those less impressed with it include Robert Simon who, along with fellow New York-based dealers Alex Parish and Warren Adelson, bought the painting after it appeared at a small provincial auction in the US in 2005. The consortium, known as the R.W. Chandler company, then tasked New York-based restorer Dianne Dwyer Modestini with conserving the painting.

In the comments below Campbell’s Instagram post, @robertsimonfineart wrote: “Dr. Campbell, this is an incredibly ill-informed and mean-spirited comment about one of the most respected painting conservators in the world, one who incidentally spent many years diligently working at your former institution. I personally observed the conservation process on the Salvator Mundi and can attest to the absolute honesty, modesty, and respect that Dianne Modestini brought to her work on the painting—carried out at the highest ethical standards of the profession. Given the prevalence of so many foolish remarks in both serious and social media, I have refrained from responding, but feel compelled to do so now.”

Campbell then responded: “I have [the] greatest respect for Modestini. Was simply remarking, as so many others have, on extensive amount of conservation. Seems to be a lot of over-sensitivity out there.”

Another who, presumably, took exception to Campbell’s post is Loic Gouzer, Christie’s co-chairman of post-war and contemporary art in the Americas, who consigned the Salvator Mundi. Although no public comment from Gouzer appears, perhaps in response to a direct message Campbell writes: “@loicgouzer my comment was a legitimate response to an extraordinary price. Christie’s doesn’t need your abusive bullying to defend itself. And my comment certainly wasn’t an attack on a highly competent conservator. If you don’t enjoy my occasional Instagram posts then don’t follow me.”

The copyright for the original image posted by Campbell (along with others of the painting) is owned by Salvator Mundi LLC, managed by Robert Simon, but the company licensed the exclusive use of these photographs to Christie’s for the period around the auction. Before the sale, Christie’s used the image in the catalogue and in a video explaining the history and restoration of the Salvator Mundi. The photograph also appears in the book Leonardo da Vinci's technical practice: Paintings, drawing and influence by Michel Menu, published by Editions Hermann.

Today (22 November) Robert Simon says his reaction was triggered by Campbell's response to a comment from Brett Gorvy, the art dealer and former chairman and international head of post-war and contemporary art at Christie's, who wrote “Would love to see the condition report on the Mona Lisa or the Last Supper.” Campbell responded, “that’s one way of looking at it. Another is that, inch for inch, conservator Dianne Modestini must be among the most highly-valued living artists in the world!”