Ideally, nothing in the world should cost $450 million. But then comes along a painting which may or may not have been painted by Leonardo da Vinci, and that makes for a story ripe with controversy, conspiracy theories, mud-slinging, and intense megalomania. So much so that there are now not one but two new films documenting the journey of “Salvator Mundi” from a humble auction in New Orleans to New York, London, Paris, Singapore, back to New York, then possibly Saudi Arabia, then almost back to Paris, and finally to no-one-knows-where.
Andreas Koefoed’s The Lost Leonardo begins with “sleeper hunter” Alexander Parish receiving the alleged da Vinci in a cardboard box and carrying it to his partner, New York art dealer Robert Simon, in a garbage bag. “Which is kind of what you would expect for the sort of money we spent,” he quips. They had paid around $1175 for the painting, which depicts Jesus Christ holding an orb, representing his role as savior of the world. Antoine Vitkine’s Savior for Sale: Da Vinci’s Lost Masterpiece? relates this same information, but centers Simon instead of Parish. Between the two films, the other players are more or less the same. There’s restorer Dianne Modestini, who first claimed the painting is a lost da Vinci; Luke Syson, the curator of London’s National Gallery who decided to exhibit it as a da Vinci amidst much speculation; Russian mining magnate Dmitry Rybolovlev, who paid $127.5 million for the painting; freeport mogul Yves Bouvier, who brokered the deal for Rybolovlev with a whopping $44.5 million margin; and Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman, who allegedly now owns the painting after buying it through Christie’s for $450 million.
While The Lost Leonardo brings together different perspectives from art journalists, Vitkine (a journalist himself) uses Savior for Sale to dig into how museums and galleries are not merely complicit with the unregulated art-industrial complex, but are necessary to it. The “Salvator Mundi” story continually fishes juicy kernels from the bellies of a series of corrupt matryoshka dolls. Anyone who has ever looked at a list of trustees and board members at any cultural institution in New York, or has (even cursorily) followed a paper trail, won’t be surprised in the least. There is deep irony in a Bank of America employee questioning the ethics of a Russian billionaire, or the FBI and CIA claiming to pursue the cause of morality and ethics in this series of shady deals.
“After drugs and prostitution, the art market is the most unregulated market in the world,” one journalist jokes in The Lost Leonardo. It’s a funny quote, but the greatest strength of both documentaries is the way they implicate all markets in their search for gold (or oil) — academics, journalists, artists, art dealers, curators, galleries. While Russia and Saudi Arabia are easy targets for discussions of corruption, both Koefoed and Vitkine highlight the insatiable greed (and not just for money) spilling onto every step of this multi-storied narrative. Prince Salman, who likely orchestrated the murder of a journalist, now also likely owns a jewel of the High Renaissance. Both these actions serve the same pursuit of unmitigated power. The line made by joining the dots wraps around us all, and both these films tug that line slightly tighter as they go on.
The Lost Leonardo is now playing in select theaters. Savior for Sale releases on VOD platforms September 17.