Cath Fletcher reviews 'The Last Leonardo' by Ben Lewis (William Collins, 2019)
On 13 April 2019, The Times splashed on the headline “Fresh doubt over world’s most expensive painting”.
Accompanied by a picture of the Salvator Mundi, controversially attributed to Leonardo da Vinci in a National Gallery exhibition of 2011, the newspaper reported on claims in Ben Lewis’s book The Last Leonardo that the attribution was now in doubt.
The Salvator Mundi sold at auction for $450 million in November 2017 (a picture of Christ holding a crystal globe, its title means Saviour of the World). The buyer is believed to have been acting for the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
He bought it from one Dmitry Rybolovlev, who had purchased the painting four years earlier, for $127.5 million, plus 1% commission for the middleman, a certain Yves Bouvier. Bouvier in turn had bought it for $80 million, netting himself a profit of $48 million in the space of a day. You will not be surprised to learn that litigation is ongoing.
Bouvier’s profit is not, though, as spectacular as that of the two dealers who sold him the $80 million painting, Robert Simon and Alex Parish. In 2005, they bought it at an obscure New Orleans auction house for just $1,175. Even after substantial costs, they can presumably afford to retire.
What makes a thousand dollar painting become a $450 million painting? The answer is a great deal of restoration and enough prominent experts willing to say that this is indeed a Leonardo — or at least, that enough of it is a Leonardo.
That’s where the controversy comes in. Lewis has done a great deal of work to show that in fact many experts were rather doubtful about the attribution. Key research was not available for public scrutiny before the sale. Plenty of buyers wavered, aware that whatever the National Gallery claimed there was good reason not to open their wallets.
“It was clear”, Lewis writes, “that it would take a very particular kind of collector to buy the Salvator Mundi. He would need to be very rich, of course, but also less discerning than those who came before him, or more desperate to own a Leonardo, or poorly advised”.
The painting, so far as anyone can work out, is now sitting in a warehouse in the Geneva Freeport, a holding facility near the city’s airport that is legally neither in French nor Swiss territory. Freeports are a key element of the offshore financial industry, enabling the storage of high-value items outside any tax system (just last week, Boris Johnson proposed that post-Brexit Britain might establish its own).
Art has become an increasingly important mechanism in offshore transactions too.
That’s because (as the Salvator case shows) its value can be highly volatile. A price that might seem “over the odds” can be the consequence of a new attribution, or simply someone’s passion for a work.
Moreover, art isn’t subject to the transparency rules that have been tightened in recent years for other sorts of investment. Today’s equivalent of the old anonymous Swiss bank account is a not-quite-Swiss Freeport locker full of Old Masters.
What would Leonardo da Vinci himself have made of all this? I doubt he would have been impressed. “That is not riches which may be lost”, he wrote. “Virtue is our true wealth and the reward of its possessor... As for property and external riches hold them with trembling; they often leave their possessor in contempt and ignominy for having lost them”.
He described money and gold emerging “out of cavernous pits” and making “all the nations of the world toil and sweat with the greatest torments, anxiety and labour, that they may gain its aid”. He wrote of metals as a monster that “shall increase the number of bad men and encourage them to assassinations, robberies, and enslavement” (whether he was speaking of the production of coins or weapons there is a moot point).
The Leonardo who may or may not have painted the Salvator Mundi was born in 1452, though almost certainly not at the house in the Tuscan village of Vinci that is now his “birthplace museum”. Apprenticed to Andrea Verrocchio, a prominent painter in the nearby town of Florence, Leonardo worked across painting, sculpture and engineering projects, as well as filling notebooks with all manner of scientific studies.
Giorgio Vasari, whose sixteenth-century book Lives of the Artists is a founding text of modern art history, described Leonardo as “truly wondrous and divine”, a man who “left behind all other men”, a “genius endowed by God… rather than created by human artifice”.
The emphasis on Leonardo’s individual genius, however, obscures the reality of Renaissance art production. Like all the star names of this period, Leonardo ran a workshop, with numerous assistants who contributed to his works. The workshop system lies at the heart of the dispute about the authenticity of the Salvator Mundi.
There are in fact several versions of the painting, most of which are attributed to Leonardo’s assistants. Numerous artists were associated with the workshop, among them Giovanni Boltraffio, Andrea Solario, Cesare da Sesto, Francesco Melzi, Bernardino Luini, Marco d’Oggioni and Gian Giacomo Caprotti, who was known as Salaì.
Hence the business of expert attribution to determine the artistic whodunnit. When the two small-time art dealers who first purchased the Salvator Mundi at auction looked at what they’d got, they thought it might be a Luini.
“A beautiful Luini would be into six figures”, Alex Parish told Lewis, “and let me tell you, that’s exactly what I want”.
It is tempting to see the whole Salvator Mundi affair as the workshop’s last laugh against the people who hype up only the master’s true genius, forgetting that Renaissance art was a collaborative business.
Leonardo was well-known for not getting projects finished (Vasari said as much). Fewer than twenty paintings are now attributed to Leonardo rather than his workshop.
A buyer at the turn of the fifteenth to sixteenth century who wanted a painting in Leonardo’s style had a much better chance of getting one if he or she was prepared to accept one produced by the workshop, rather than insisting on the master’s hand alone. Then as now, a range of paintings at different price points were available.
In fact, Leonardo himself was as interested in pursuing aspects of mathematic and scientific study as he was in delivering paintings on time, perhaps more so.
So if the workshop could deliver or, even better, if he could attract a patron who required rather little in the way of actual artwork that suited him. Fortunately Leonardo was in demand by the competing royal courts of Europe, for whom art patronage was a means to burnish their princely status, and also by the leading oligarchs of his age, for whom a knowledge of art shored up their cultural credentials. If the Salvator Mundi is indeed now owned by a prince of an absolutist regime, it is close to being back where it came from.
Over the centuries, collectors have decided that a “real” Leonardo should be worth more than one partially or exclusively executed by assistants. From the seventeenth century onwards, art collecting has been a cut-throat business, with wealthy patrons often hiding behind anonymous agents so as to avoid the price being forced up when sellers realised what they might pay.
Charles I — the king who lost the Civil War and with it his head--was an acquisitive purchaser who snapped up multiple works (including a Salvator Mundi) via overseas agents.
The documents from the sale of the late king’s goods during the English Republic are one of the key sources for early modern art history, not least when it comes to the detective work of tracking down who owned which Salvator Mundi when.
Lewis pieces together this tale in some detail (though we’re promised an account from the people who did the pre-sale research later this year, and it will be interesting to read both together).
It was announced in 2018 that the Salvator Mundi would be shown at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. But two weeks before it was due to go on show the exhibition was cancelled. It remains to be seen whether it will be shown at the major Leonardo da Vinci exhibition in Paris later this year.
Even if it does appear, it may well be a disappointment. It was in extremely poor condition on purchase and has been extensively restored.
Yet whatever the state of the painting — and whether or not it proves worth the price paid—its story remains fascinating. Five hundred years on from the point when Leonardo da Vinci was employed by the duke of Milan, the government of Florence and the king of France to produce their propaganda, his art is still entwined with politics.
This time, however, it’s the politics of offshore finance, the Russian oligarchy and Saudi royals. Plus ça change.