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The Salvatore Mundi’s True Story
Let me ask you something: how many paintings by Leonardo da Vinci exist in the world? A dozen? Fifty? Maybe a hundred?
Whenever I pose this query to people, the guess I receive in reply is usually one of two extreme, and opposing, options: something impossibly low like, “There’s what, three?” or something insanely high like, “I don’t know…500?” The answer is actually closer to the impossibly low end of the spectrum. There are eight works that we know unequivocally that the master painted and then another nine or so that experts are pretty sure he created but the provenance—records that trace the painting’s whereabouts from easel to present day—is disputed, lost, or incomplete. A single painting by Leonardo is one of the rarest, not to mention most valuable, items on earth.
In 2006, a group of art speculators spent $1,175 on a painting in New Orleans thought to be a copy of a lost work by Leonardo called the Salvatore Mundi. The painting, depicting Christ giving the sign of the cross and holding a glass sphere, was in bad shape from centuries of overpainting, dirt, and grime. It was during the restoration process that experts began to notice things that were a little unusual. An infrared photo of the painting showed the thumb of Christ’s right hand had been moved and repainted in a different position—something that would only happen with an original artwork, not a copy. Then there was the painting technique used on Christ’s upper lip. We asked Dianne Modestini, the Michael Jordan of art restoration who worked on the painting, to explain: “You can’t see any brushstrokes, you cannot see the transition.” The only other place she had seen the technique? The Mona Lisa.
Throngs of visitors crowd around an exhibit of the Salvator Mundi, an alleged painting by Leonardo Da Vinci, in Naples, 2017.
Art collectors around the world went bonkers. The first Leonardo to be discovered in decades would actually be up for sale—something that had never happened in modern history. And when it did hit the market, the price of the painting skyrocketed, becoming entangled in Russian oligarch money, and then finally, in 2017, selling to a mystery buyer for a record $450.3 million. That debates about the painting’s authenticity raged (they continue to this day), did not, it seemed, matter. That unlikely journey is now the subject of Dutch director Andreas Koefoed’s fascinating new documentary The Lost Leonardo, out now.
With so many interlocking threads, it would be easy for a less adept director to get lost in the subject matter, but Koefoed manages to weave them all together deftly and never gets too bogged down on nuance. The pace remains lively, thanks in no small part, to the colorful art world subjects he interviews throughout the course of the film. At one point, Jerry Saltz, the outspoken art critic at New York Magazine exclaims, “Opinions matter more than facts!”
It’s a moment of great personality, but it also ties into one of the biggest questions presented in the film: who gets to decide what things are worth? In The Lost Leonardo, it’s the rich and the powerful. Despite nagging questions of who exactly painted the Salvatore Mundi, in 2013 it was purchased for over $127 million by Dmitry Rybolovlev a Russian oligarch with an already impressive art collection that included works by Van Gogh, Rothko, and Matisse. Why would someone shell out that much cash for something that may not even be real?
The Salvatore Mundi.
Koefoed has an insight into the psyche of the über rich that he shared with us via a Zoom interview: “Billionaires are always competing to see who has the biggest house, the biggest yacht, the biggest private jet,” he says. “Extremely wealthy people are attracted to buying art because it’s something unique that they can have to themselves. But when it comes to a painting, there’s only one of each. And the only Leonardo you can buy is this one. That’s the most extreme trophy you can find.”
Rybolovlev would hold Salvatore Mundi in a freeport for years, using it as collateral to move money around the world, until he realized his art dealer had ripped him off for nearly a billion dollars over the course of their relationship. In a fit of rage, Rybolovlev decided to liquidate his entire art collection and eventually the painting ended up in New York on the auction block at Christie’s.
The climax of the film—if there is one—is that 2017 sale. Christie’s, for its part, is depicted as less interested in the painting’s authenticity and more interested in hyping the event to drive the price up. And the way they do that is brilliant. The campaign consisted of a four minute video featuring people having outsized emotional reactions to the painting. Some are slack jawed, some have eyes welling with tears, hands clutched. Breath taken away. At one point, another famous Leonardo (DiCaprio) appears doe eyed and clearly in awe. The Salvatore Mundi is never shown once.
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When it is finally sold for a stupefying amount, nearly half a billion dollars from an unnamed buyer, the film shifts from the intriguing world of international art sales to the very intriguing world of international espionage. Whenever a lot of cash is moved into one object—be it a piece of real estate or a work of art–intelligence and law enforcement communities start asking questions. Was the Salvatore Mundi being used to launder money from a cartel? Conceal funds from a terrorist organization?
The CIA very quickly discovered the person behind the sale to be Prince Badr bin Abdullah, a member of the Saudi royal family who was acting as a proxy for the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammd bin Salaman, or MBS. And at first, it seems like Bin Salman, who has been criticized harshly over human rights abuses (including the murder of Jamal Khashoggi) is just another hyper wealthy individual who wants to add the world’s rarest feather to his cap.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
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But then we discover he has other plans for the painting.
For years the Saudis have been trying to figure out how they will hold onto their wealth in a world that requires exponentially less oil than it does now. Part of that answer lies in transforming Saudi Arabia into a cultural mecca (right next to regular Mecca.)
At the ancient city of AlUla in northwest Saudi Arabia, the Saudi government is building a $15 billion cultural and art center designed to attract visitors from around the planet. Besides the rich archaeological sites there will also be a massive art museum—a version of the Louvre rising dramatically out of the sand. The film posits that the centerpiece of that museum will be the Salvatore Mundi, the most famous Leonardo since the Mona Lisa. Despite the lingering question of provenance, it will undoubtedly draw massive crowds for years, decades, perhaps centuries to come.
As for the record price shelled out for the Salvatore Mundi, it may prove a bargain according to Evan Beard, Executive Managing Director of National Art Services at Bank of America. “Look at the Louvre,” he told us. “They get 10 million a year in visitors and about 50 percent of those are to only see the Mona Lisa. How does the Middle East and their museum attract a few million a year? It will be because of this picture. The economic impact of this painting on a yearly basis to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is going to tremendously exceed that $450 million. I don’t think this was a folly. They may have underpaid for the picture.”
The Lost Leonardo never really answers the question if the painting is real or not. But for its new owner, the answer is simple: come to the desert and decide for yourself.
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