Between a record-breaking sale at a contemporary auction and a surprise acquisition by the Abu Dhabi government, the news concerning “Salvator Mundi” — a painting purportedly by Leonardo da Vinci — has been replete with all sorts of strange and dramatic twists. One fittingly bizarre albeit relatively quiet one was the launch of an online store about two weeks ago, Real Salvator Mundi, which sells only apparel and objects shoddily printed with the painting, from T-shirts to dog sweaters (marketed as “Salvadog Mundi”) to, yes, a hijab.
The inelegant graphic design of this self-proclaimed “ultimate art gift shop” had me question whether this was an e-commerce store quickly set up by a Zazzle-savvy entrepreneur, or, more likely, a facetious, deliberately crude project by an artist. Conveniently, its front page lists, alongside a Carroll Gardens address, a phone number. I called it a few days ago, and asked if I was speaking with the Real Salvator Mundi.
I was, and it turns out that the Real Salvator Mundi was set up by artist Elliott Arkin as an actual, operating business, to quickly circulate images of this upscale painting in an over-the-top, but ultimately jocular, way.
“There’s something about taking ownership back of this piece and making it so accessible and so much about something that everybody can have,” Arkin said. “When you take a piece of art and make it a $450 million item, you’re kind of removing it [from the public]. There’s a populist kind of notion about what I’m doing with it, there’s a populism in returning the work, where it’s something for everyone to have and deal with.”
The absurdities surrounding “Salvator Mundi,” more so than the artwork itself, have undeniably made this Renaissance Jesus one of 2017’s unexpected celebrities, and a veritable star whose face you’d actually want to have on a T-shirt or mug — like Steve Buscemi or Brendan Fraser. And orders for the serious savior have been streaming in.
Most of the items for sale are typical goods you’d find in any souvenir store, such as playing cards (the most popular product so far), but Real Salvator Mundi also has a “Contemporary Inspirations” line that consists of posters of “Salvator Mundi” altered to reference contemporary artworks. You can purchase a poster of Jesus holding a Jeff Koons Gazing Ball, or one of Jesus framed in an Instagram square, complete with a comment by @richardprince4. Prices are relatively steep (considering the superficially decorative nature of most products), but Arkin adds that a percentage of proceeds will go to charity. He also has plans to design more complex, sculptural objects, so stay tuned.
Snooty critics might dismiss Real Salvator Mundi as a stunt to capitalize on the painting’s controversial journey, and it sort of is! It’s also kind of brilliant for that exact reason. But Arkin, who has trademarked the name, is also in this for the long run, as he has bigger dreams for the store in mind.
“I hope to grow it over the next 12-–18 months large enough to get on Shark Tank!” he said. “I love that show!”
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.