Alex Parish, a New York art historian and dealer, was browsing through a catalog for an auction in New Orleans when he happened upon a painting that caught his eye. Titled “The Salvator Mundi” (Latin for “The Savior of the World”), Parish thought there was a chance that the artist was actually Leonardo da Vinci. He consulted with another art dealer, Robert B. Simon, and the two agreed to form a partnership and purchase the painting. Paying only $1,175, they weren’t risking very much. But if it turned out that Leonardo was the artist, they would reap a bonanza and, in the process, turn the art world on its head.
The documentary, The Lost Leonardo, is a fascinating look inside the art world, from the glittery facades of the most famous museums, to the dark underbelly where shady deals and money laundering bear a stark resemblance to the drug trade. The painting would ultimately sell for $450 million, bought by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, during a feverish auction at Christie’s. Yet, despite that high price tag, the jury is still out on whether “The Salvador Mundi” was actually painted by Da Vinci. Those who had a hand in authenticating the work continue to vouch for its legitimacy, while others, including many art experts, insist it’s a fake.
Establishing the painting’s provenance was the first step, laid out in notes provided in the film’s press kit. Around 1500, “The Salvator Mundi” was commissioned, perhaps for Louis XII of France, although there was no evidence that Leonardo painted it himself. Art historians are unsure where the painting was until it surfaced in 1900, purchased by the wealthy textile manufacturer, Sir. Francis Cook, where it hung in the family home in Richmond, England. In 1958, the painting was sold at Sotheby’s in London to an American businessman, Warren Kuntz for 45 pounds. Kuntz lived in New Orleans with his wife, Minnie. After their deaths, their nephew, Basil Clovis Sr., inherited the painting, where it remained in his home in Baton Rouge until 2005. Put up for sale by New Orleans Auction, the painting was discovered by Parish who, along with Simon, purchased it.
Authenticating the painting came next. For that, Parish and Simon turned to Dianne Modestini, recognized as an experienced art conservationist and restorer, who began work on the painting in 2006. The film shows how she painstakingly removes hundreds of years of varnish and paint. When she begins to restore the subject’s lips, she finds similarities between the painting and Leonard’s “Mona Lisa.” She declares: “No one except Leonardo could have painted this picture.”
Modestini, however, comes under fire. “The new parts of the painting look like Leonardo, but they are by the restorer,” says Leonardo expert Frank Zöllner. “In some parts, it’s a masterpiece by Dianne Modestini.” Modestini deflects the criticism, but it won’t be the last time that her opinion and work are called into question.
In 2008, five Leonardo experts are called to the National Gallery in London to look at “The Salvator Mundi,” although there is no thorough examination and they are not asked for a formal opinion. So it’s somewhat surprising that the National Gallery, in the 2011 exhibition, “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan,” includes the painting as an autograph Leonardo. With that stamp of approval, the Dallas Museum of Art attempts to purchase the painting, but cannot raise enough money.
Enter Yves Bouvier, an unscrupulous art dealer, who buys the painting for $83 million, then turns around and sells it to his client, Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev, for $127 million, making a $44.5 million profit. Turns out this wasn’t the first time that Bouvier had cheated Rybolovlev, prompting lawsuits that continue to this day.
Tasked in 2017 with selling the painting at auction, Christie’s launches a huge marketing campaign that ignores the question of authenticity, focusing instead on the emotional reaction exhibited by those who view “The Salvator Mundi,” including the actor Leonardo DiCaprio. The buyer willing to shell out $450 million is kept under wraps until finally revealed by New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick to be MBS.
In October 2019, the Louvre in Paris opens an exhibition to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death. “The Salvador Mundi” is not included. Later it’s learned that MBS demanded that the painting be shown adjacent to the “Mona Lisa,” something the museum would not do. The painting apparently remains hidden away somewhere in one of MBS’s palaces.
Danish Director Andreas Koefoed has done a masterful job of creating a documentary that plays like a crime thriller. While officials from the National Gallery, the Louvre, and Christie’s declined to participate, Koefoed managed to score on screen interviews with a wide range of experts and players who do not hold back in voicing their opinions. Those who had something to do with declaring the painting a bonafide Leonardo continue to defend themselves, while others are just as eager to declare the work “garbage,” as does art critic and writer Jerry Saltz.
At this point, does it matter? “The Salvator Mundi” now has an identity all its own and whenever it’s exhibited again, there will surely be long lines of people eager to see for themselves a painting purchased for nearly half a billion dollars.
Top photo: Robert Simon (left), Alexander Parish (right).
Image by Adam Jandrup. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.