A long-lost da Vinci sold at auction last year for a record $450.3 million, quite a jump from the $120 price it fetched in 1958, before anyone knew it was a work by the master. The Wall Street Journal has done some detective work to piece together the fascinating history of how the sale of Salvator Mundi came to be. The key part: A Louisiana family owned the painting for nearly 50 years, unaware it was a da Vinci. As the Journal recounts, a New Orleans couple named Warren and Minnie Kuntz bought the painting at auction while on a trip to Europe in 1958 for $120, after being told it had been painted not by da Vinci but by one of his adherents. The work was passed on to their nephew, Basil Hendry of Baton Rouge, in the 1980s. After he died in 2004, a sharp-eyed dealer named Alexander Parrish spotted the painting—in a real-estate listing for Hendry's home.
Parrish and a fellow dealer, Robert Simon, teamed up to buy the painting for less than $10,000 at Hendry's estate sale. At that point, they didn't know it was by da Vinci, either, but they suspected the painting could be valuable if one of his students had indeed created it. They had the painting restored, and it was during that process that it was discovered da Vinci himself painted it. The two successfully lobbied the powers-that-be in the art world to have the work authenticated, the result being last year's mind-boggling auction price. "We can't believe it, that such an incredible piece could have been in our family and we didn't even know it all this time," Hendry's daughter tells the Journal, and she seems mostly OK with the lost fortune. "But now you know it's like, 'Oh God, why couldn't we still have this thing?'" (Read more Leonardo da Vinci stories.)