Deciphering the Da Vinci Code of the Art Market

Authenticating works of art has never been an exact science. A recent notorious case concerns the famous Salvator Mundi. Possibly painted (at least in part) by Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi broke all previous auction records with its 2017 sale by Christie’s New York for over $ 450 million. The mysterious buyer turned out to be a Saudi prince, the Minister of Culture under the country’s ambitious new ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But the cost of a painting does not necessarily determine its value when there are lingering doubts about its authenticity.

The Salvator Mundi case is now the subject of two documentaries, that of Andreas Koefoed The lost Leonardo and that of Antoine Vitkine The Savior for Sale: Da Vinci’s Lost Masterpiece? Both are in-depth, well-done, continent-to-continent examinations of the high-end art market – especially the dealers, auctioneers, and museums that form its support network – across the prism of the Saving rely on anonymous sources, with their faces hidden, in the Louvre. After all, we are now dealing with a Saudi regime that did not hesitate to lure dissident journalist Jamal Shashoggi to a consulate on foreign soil, assassinate him and dismember him.

The two films tell roughly the same story, interview many of the same people, and come to similar conclusions. The quest for the missing masterpiece began in Louisiana where Salvator Mundi was discovered hanged in the stairwell of a private house. After Christie’s looked up, the owner’s heir took him to a New Orleans auction house in 2005, where he caught the attention of a “sleeper hunter” (“the sleepers ”are works of art undervalued or misidentified by auctioneers). He took it to a New York art dealer who saw promise under centuries of dirt and overpaint. We can see why. At least after its controversial “restoration”, the Salvator Mundi represents Christ bathed in the sweet aura of a transcendent peace which surpasses all comprehension. The press has dubbed her “the male Mona Lisa” for good reason. The painting is fascinating, it dates from the time of Leonardo da Vinci and in his style, but did he really paint it?

The question would be academic if the painting was attributed to an obscure Renaissance Italian. Instead, he captivated the media and the art world because he could be Da Vinci, that towering figure who embodied art and crafts, science and technology – truly a “Man.” rebirth “. Looms Salvator Mundi’s discovery was the popularity of a potboiler novel and a Hollywood movie. The “Da Vinci Code do Salvator Mundi honey to an infotainment industry looking for a sweet new story.

Authentication issues arose when the New York dealership sent Salvator Mundi to the National Gallery of Great Britain for possible inclusion in a Da Vinci exhibition. The curator of the Gallery had it examined by five art historians. According to The savior for sale, one said it was Da Vinci, one said no and three said they didn’t know. The lost Leonardo is less clear on this assessment but brings together other experts who denounce the painting as a fraud or – charitably – a case of mistaken identity.

With little evidence, the curator, a casual man who seems more concerned with branding than painting, continued his plans, calling the evidence “strong enough” to Salvator Mundi’s inclusion in the exhibition.

The National Gallery is an awesome bullet point on any painting’s resume. Afterward, the New York dealer and his new partner decided it was safe to sell him as the likely Da Vinci.

From there, the work of historical authentication detective is crisscrossed with international intrigues led by private actors and governments. Millions of dollars passed through shell companies and holding companies, through middlemen working through other middlemen, until it was bought by a Russian oligarch living abroad (in many places ), his mansions furnished with bulletproof windows and panic rooms. In The savior for sale he seems interested in art; in The lost Leonardo his interest is all about mobile assets. Either way, rather than hanging his many masterpieces on its many fireplaces, the oligarch (like other art investors) stores them in a vaulted steel sanctuary in Singapore. The bomb could fall and mankind perish, but his collection could survive.

The problem was, the oligarch’s slippery Swiss art advisor tricked him into the sale and pocketed a higher than agreed commission for his services. The indignant oligarch destroyed the career of the artistic advisor and decided to return the painting to auction. Christie’s catalog essay was written by the only art historian of the National Gallery conclave convinced of its authenticity. Even told him The savior for sale that Christie’s catalog was “too precise” in claiming that the painting was by Da Vinci. It may be telling that Christie’s brought the Salvator Mundi auctioned not to Old Master collectors but to contemporary art collectors, the kind of rich fools who pay money for Damien Hirst.

Saudis outbid everyone, likely to use Salvator Mundi as an anchor for a large museum to be erected as part of the Crown Prince’s plan for a post-oil Arabia. The Crown Prince is as concerned with the commercialization of Saudi Arabia as the curator was with the commercialization of the National Gallery. As usual, PR campaigns are made up of lies, half-truths, and optimism.

The controversy continued. According to The savior for sale, the Saudi crown prince offered millions to France if the Louvre exhibited Salvator Mundi alongside the Mona Lisa– and stamp the painting as 100 percent authentic. All the Louvre investigators were prepared to do was assert that Salvator Mundi was made in Leonardo da Vinci’s studio and the master may have added a few strokes of paint to the manual work of his acolytes. Although it is doubtful that the search for the truth behind Salvator Mundi will lead to definitive answers, the truth has little meaning for the actors of this drama.

The Lost Leonardo is screened at the Downer Theater.

David Luhrssen

David Luhrssen has taught at UWM and MIAD. He is the author of The Vietnam War on Film, Encyclopedia of Classic Rock and Hammer of the Gods: Thule Society and the Birth of Nazism.

Read more about David Luhrssen

September 13, 2021


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