Why are we so fascinated about the world of fine art and scandal? Why do we flock to programs about art thefts like Netflix’s four part series This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist (2021) or the breaking of wills for fun and profit in The Art of the Steal (2009) about the controversy and history of the Barnes Foundation in Pennsylvania? Now we’ve got the scandalous story of the Leonardo Da Vinci painting Salvador Mundi in the recently released Savior For Sale: Da Vinci’s Lost Masterpiece? (2021). It’s the second documentary about the painting, the first being Lost Leonardo.
How exactly did a painting found in a New Orleans auction house for $1,175 in 2005 end up selling for a record-breaking $400 million at Christie’s Auction House in 2017? That’s not including the $50 million for the auction house.
The documentary explores the wealth of controversies surrounding the “Lost Leonardo” through interviews with the key players. It presents its cast of characters, naming them “The Merchant,” “The Expert,” “The Journalist,” “The Right-Handed Man” etc., kind of like the characters of a real-life Ocean’s 11. Except the heist is the sale of a dubiously authenticated painting for hundreds of millions of dollars.
The central issue about the documentary is the painting’s authenticity, going through each interested party’s reasoning behind their decision. The film starts with Robert Simon, labeled “The Merchant”, who was the art dealer who found the painting in 2005 and his belief in the painting based on the discovery of a second thumb in the restoration process. Simon talked about how they considered all possibilities, like a copier changing their mind about the position of the thumb. Eventually, his team decided that the second thumb was a pentimento, a change made by the artist that is obscured under paint. To the viewer, this doesn’t seem like a strong basis for the painting to be an authentic Da Vinci.
And then how the National Gallery in the United Kingdom got involved and invited five experts to look at the painting. One definitively said no, one said yes, and the others were noncommittal. Yet despite this ambiguous meeting of the minds, Luke Syson, “The Curator” at the National Gallery, decided to include it in the seminal Leonardo exhibition in 2011-2012.
It reminded me of Sharon Waxman’s Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World (2008) where she talks about the tradition of giving legitimacy to privately held works of art by putting them in museum shows or permanent display. In other words, you show this treasure amongst other treasures to prove that it is also a treasure. It’s a bit recursive but an obvious and useful tactic to legitimize works of art.
While the film goes on to the other subsequent tests (or lack thereof) about the authenticity of the painting, what I find even more interesting is the insight it gives into the world of the ultra-wealthy. There’s a section where the film focused on Dmitry Rybolovlev, known as “the Oligarch”, who initially buys the painting for $127.5 million.
At one point, the film talks about how the painting (along with the others in his collection) was bought through a separate company Mei Invest LTD, rather than owned directly by Rybolovlev, for tax purposes. It’s an excellent demonstration of what Brooke Harrington talks about in her 2016 Capital Without Borders: Wealth Managers and the One Percent. Harrington talks about how the ultra-wealthy use shell companies, often Limited Liability Companies, as a way to protect their assets from taxes, divorce, and other wealth-diminishing events. It is also useful to protect the anonymity of a person since figuring out who actually owns the assets can be a challenge.
Going even further, there’s a notable scene where the painting is shown being stored away in a warehouse with Rybolovlev’s other masterpieces. It’s a little like the last scene of Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark when the Ark is boxed up and sent away to a storehouse of many treasures. Added with the whole shell company aspect, art feels like it’s merely another asset to be hoarded rather than a work of art to be enjoyed.
Or there’s a great scene with Chris Dercon, president of the Réunion des musées nationaux Grand Palais (RMN-Grand Palais), when he talks about how he was asked by the Saudis to help them with their vast cultural project, he says, “Sometimes you need missionaries and mercenaries like me to open doors.” The film labels him “The Mercenary,” of course. With enormous amounts of money, anything is possible, even access to top institutions.
The documentary also shows that when large amounts of money is at stake, everyone wants a piece. Shortcuts may be taken, people may get overly optimistic (at best) or omit critical information that could impact the sale price. Even without the questions of authenticity, there’s shenanigans with just the sale of paintings to the rich and famous. Scott Reyburn, “The Journalist” of the New York Times, aptly says, “The art world is full of people who want to make huge amounts of money out of rich people.”
Given the subject of the work, I feel that there was a bit of an omission about the religious meaning of the painting. There’s some mention that various owners wanted the painting because of its subject but a bit of a deeper dive might have been interesting. What does it mean to sell a painting of Jesus for that much money? What are the theological implications?
The film gets close to showing the importance of the subject when it shows footage of audience reactions to the painting at Christie’s where the film shows people crying or mouths open in awe. Clearly, they were having incredible reactions to the painting. (Also a sign of the wonderful marketing strategy that Christie’s employed.) Then again, it might have taken a detour in the film’s exploration of the business of the art world.
Towards the end, we get the answer to the question about why we are so fascinated by these stories. Martin Kemp, “The Expert,” concludes, “If I’m wrong, nobody’s died. Somebody’s lost a lot of money.” At the end of the day, the story is about art, rich people, and their money. Unlike most True Crime podcasts, books and shows, nobody has died, gone to prison or faced the destruction of their family and friends. Here it’s just money and reputation on the line, so there’s perhaps less guilt in watching how these actions unfold.
The film is available for streaming on platforms Apple TV+ / iTunes and Amazon Prime Video as well as in theatres.