Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vince - c.1500, oil on walnut panel. Photo by VCG Wilson via Getty Images. courtesy of wikipedia
Arts & Culture Visual Arts

The Battle Over Da Vinci’s “Lost Masterpiece” Is Still Happening

Somewhere out there in the world is a painting called “Salvator Mundi” that may or may not be by Leonardo da Vinci. It may or may not be a portrait of Jesus Christ, and it may or may not be safe. Some people claim that it’s in a vault in Saudi Arabia, whereas others say it might be in a private yacht on the Red Sea. A few wilder reports say that it’s been sold on into the hands of a mass murderer. That sounds like a crazy story, but it’s no crazier than the remarkable story of the world’s most expensive painting. 

When the United Kingdom’s National Gallery exhibited “Salvator Mundi” more than a decade ago, it was careful to represent it as an anonymous piece. They said that it was thought to be a da Vinci but couldn’t prove the connection. They went to great lengths to point out that it had been at least partially restored by unknown hands at some point since the 16th century, and its history was unknown. That should have been enough to tell art dealers that this was not a painting worth paying hundreds of millions of dollars for. Instead, it only seemed to bring it a certain kind of notoriety. It became a renegade painting, and, as such, it appealed to very rich renegades and mavericks. 

The whole tale of the painting known as “Salvator Mundi” is to be told in a new film called “The Lost Leonardo.” Even the title is contentious to those who insist that the painting isn’t da Vinci’s work, but the film is well worth a watch, even if you’re quite familiar with the tale. It features new interviews and a wealth of new information. You still won’t know whether or not the painting is a da Vinci by the time the credits roll, but you’ll marvel at the fact that someone became so sure of its debatable provenance that they paid $450m for it – and then immediately hid it from the rest of the world with no promise that anyone else will ever see it again. 

So much has been said and written about “Salvator Mundi” that it’s very difficult to distinguish between fact, guesswork, and fiction. We’ll try to focus on the facts, and here’s where they begin. There is no record of the existence of “Salvator Mundi” before 1900. That year, it was sold for a modest sum on the understanding that it was painted by da Vinci devotee Bernardino Luini – not da Vinci himself. It then changes hands a few times for mid-range figures until it was acquired by art dealers Robert Simon and Alexander Parrish for a little over $1000 in 2005. By that point, it’s been badly damaged and goes through another ten years of restoration on top of the extensive restoration work that someone had apparently performed on it prior to 1900. In 2017, a mere two years after restoration work was completed, it sold at Christie’s New York for $450m. The circumstances of its sudden leap in value and the fleeting certainty that this was a da Vinci painting are still being debated by lawyers today. 

There are so many threads to pull on with this story that it’s impossible to know where to start. One of the most controversial claims made about the painting is that Dianne Modestini, who performed the 2005-2015 restoration, tampered with the portrait to make it look more like a da Vinci. She appears in the film, and she denies the accusation vehemently. The National Gallery itself is accused of artificially increasing the value of the painting by including it in a prestigious exhibition – an unusual thing to do with a portrait of uncertain origin. There’s also the small matter of the artwork being re-sold while it was still undergoing restoration. Art adviser Yves Bouvier paid $83m for it sight-unseen in 2013 and then instantly sold it to Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev for $128m. The Russian made his money back with the 2017 sale but still feels that Bouvier defrauded him. It’s that allegation that will soon be tested in court. The legal process may yet reveal further information about the likely authenticity of the painting, with testimony from experts who’ve seen it first hand. 

By disappearing off the face of the Earth, the painting has almost become legendary. Although we know how much was paid for it in 2017, we don’t know who the buyer was. It’s often suggested that the winning bid came from Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. He has never confirmed nor denied this suggestion, and nor is he ever likely to. If he doesn’t have it, there are no other credible suggestions. It was bought and paid for by someone who paid way over the odds for such a dubious work of art, and then it disappeared. There are many strange tales in the art world, but this is surely the strangest of the 21st century thus far. 

It’s unlikely that so much attention would be foisted upon a work of art that may have come from any other painter. There’s something special about da Vinci. The Renaissance master is generally recognised as one of the greatest men who ever lived. Even today, his works inspire dozens of media creations. A limited-run series about his life (largely fictionalised) has just finished its first run on streaming services. Online slots websites host games that feature his best work. The idea of art by Leonardo da Vinci spinning around on the reels of online slots like “Da Vinci Diamonds” at Rose Slots Canada is a strange one, but the slot exists. So do several sequels and tie-ins. It might not be as bizarre an idea as it first seems – there’s also a popular online slots game based on the work of Vincent van Gogh – but very few other artists connect with the public well enough to be used in such a way. You won’t find “Salvator Mundi” among the works that appear in those slots, but maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea. 

In the latest legal filing on the matter, Yves Bouvier is seeking one billion dollars in damages from Dmitry Rybolovlev. He feels that the billionaire sullied his reputation and ruined his career by accusing him of fraud in 2013. Nobody knows how that case will go, but there’s nothing that sums up art dealing quite like two rich men suing each other for incredible amounts of money over a painting that neither now owns and may not even be genuine. 

If and when the legal matter is ever resolved, we’ll let you know. In the meantime, watch the film. As sensational as we’ve made the story sound here, the documentary goes even further. 

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