Las Vegas, Nevada, isn’t normally the first place you think of when it comes to the viewing of fine art. The entertainment capital of the world is more famous for its casinos and … well its casinos. However on January 19th a cast of the only known sculpture by High Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci went on display at the Renaissance Gallery at the Shoppes at the Palazzo, at the Venetian Casino. So how did a cast of a 500 year old sculpture by one of the world’s most famous artists end up on display at a location that isn’t exactly renowned for its cultural emphasis?

Well, the story starts back in 1985 when four businessmen had travelled to Switzerland to enquire about the purchase of a museum. During the trip, they encountered a small sculpture that was languishing in a vault – hand carved from beeswax, measuring ten inches in height, eight inches in length and three inches in width, the work depicted a rider atop of a war horse. There were rumours that the work was attributed to da Vinci, but in order to be certain, the men enlisted the help of Dr.Carlo Pedretti, an Italian historian who is the emeritus professor for of Art History and Armand Hammer chair in Leonardo Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and is generally acknowledged as a global authority on da Vinci.

After extensive study of the wax model, Dr. Pedretti declared that, “In my opinion, this wax model is by Leonardo himself”. Dr. Pedretti believed that the figure shown riding the horse might have been da Vinci’s friend and patron, Charles d’Amboise, the French Governor of Milan in the early 1500s. Da Vinci is known to have created plans for numerous equestrian themes sculptures, and it is likely that Horse and Rider was another of these plans that were never realised, in part due to the technological limitations of bronze casting, and partly due to the associated cost.

Clearly with an eye for opportunity, the businessmen made a mould of the delicate wax sculpture, intending to return to the US and make bronze casts that could be sold as limited editions. For whatever reason, this casting process never took place, and in 1987 an investor, Richard A. Lewis, purchased the mould that they had created as well as the documents and correspondence from Dr. Pedretti. He did nothing with it for 25 years, during which period the original da Vinci wax sculpture somehow went missing from the Swiss vault, with its whereabouts still unknown. However this year he decided to create a run of 996 casts from the mould in Classic Bronze, Verde, Leonardo Classic (whatever that is?) and Silver, one of which ended up on permanent display at the Venetian Casino, and the rest of which are available for purchase through the Shoppes at the Palazzo, at the Venetian.

It is being promoted as the only authenticated da Vinci sculpture, and although Dr. Pedretti was the only scholar to investigate the original wax sculpture, given his credentials and his extensive experience in the field, his word seems to be law regarding all things da Vinci. If you’re in Las Vegas, a trip to see a cast of the only verified da Vinci sculpture might make for a pleasant break from the slot machines and blackjack tables, but the blatant commercialisation that surrounds the work is perhaps not the ideal environment in which to appreciate it.