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  • Writer's pictureFiona Prior

The Lost Leonardo

Updated: Jan 4, 2022

The Lost Leonardo

Directed by Andreas Koefoed

The Lost Leonardo in this documentary is ‘Salvator Mundi’ (‘Saviour of the World’), a highly damaged artwork discovered in a New Orleans auction house and bought in 2008 for $1175 by Alexander Parish, member of a small art dealership consortium. In 2017 it was auctioned for US$450.3 million … quite an appreciation in just nine years!

Image: 'Salvator Mundi' (restored)

The art market is often considered the third most unregulated market after drugs and prostitution. Like most cultural markets it is heavily based on ‘authenticity’, provenance and expert opinion regarding the artefacts it moves (to note, though with much more emphasis on cultural valuation, that ‘expert opinion’ is relied on as much for contemporary as for historical works).

What I particularly love about ‘The Lost Leonardo’, is how it adroitly examines all those dimensions that art ownership signifies … obviously the joy of owning something that holds meaning to you; but also the symbols of wealth, power, prestige, and even political influence. Art can be as suggestive of those latter attributes as, say, a yacht, private aeroplane or proximity to an influential ear but in monetary value it is far more easy to discretely move a work of art on canvas … and this is one of the many particular leaps in value our artwork took. But back to the beginning of our story.


As mentioned, the history of this particular work in the documentary starts at the point it was spied in a New Orleans auction house by art-dealer, Alexander Parish. (Note, there are multiple historical accounts and records that relate to ‘Salvator Mundi’ but these could easily relate to any of the various artworks (thirty at least) circulating our world, many created by da Vinci’s helpers and followers.)

The work was badly overpainted and round 70% was badly damaged. However, our art-dealers (Parish was the member of a small art-dealership consortium) had a feeling about the work, and passed it on to high profile restoration specialist Dianne Dwyer Modestini at New York University, to work her magic.

Modestini became convinced the work was an original da Vinci (making particular reference to the work’s mouth and hand details). She completed her renovation (70%, remember) and the dealers then passed it on to London’s National Museum to authenticate. Experts were summoned, there was much 'umming' and 'ahhing' (but no solid 'yay' or 'nay') … The next thing we find is that the National Museum is exhibiting the piece as an autographed work by the grand old master. Hmmm?!

The art-dealers try to sell, valuing the piece at $30 million but have no bites. Possibly this is due to the lack of clear authentication and/or that the work has been so significantly reworked by Modestini. Now our story gets really interesting.

image: 'Salvator Mundi' (unrestored)

The Russian Oligarch

In 2013, the Swiss dealer Yves Bouvier purchased the painting for just over US$75 million in a private sale brokered by Sotheby's, New York. Bouvier owns a massive ‘free port’ storage facility for the ultra rich. He hears of the Leonardo round the same time as Russian Oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev is experiencing a potential financial meltdown, due to an environmental disaster associated with one of his business concerns.

Rybolovlev wants to move money from Russia fast and Bouvier has the means to assist. Bouvier suggests turning money into artworks (Gauguins, Modiglianis … and our ‘Salvator Mundi’) and storing them in his free port premise. As he already has many of these works in storage he can easily approach the owners and suggest the sales. So far so good, except that he charges Rybolovlev $127.5 million for the work. That’s some mark-up and so noteworthy it becomes newsworthy. When Oligarch Rybolovlev hears he basically advises Bouvier to reverse the trade or he will be sorry – sort of like being advised to do what your told or your legs will be broken.

Bouvier is in a dilemma. He approaches that esteemed (and highy commercial) auction house Christie’s and Christie’s mounts a 'no expense spared', international marketing campaign … but remember, we still have no authentication of our work, though ‘Salvator Mundi’ is fast becoming a collectors' house-hold name.

Christie’s view of who or what would buy the work? A nation, an institution, a tech billionaire or a similar extremely high worth individual.

A Prince

All this was happening round the time the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was rounding up family members and imprisoning them in 5-star luxury, accusing them of ripping off the Government/his family (strangely, the arrested were his family!). MBS demands that his rels pay back vast sums to the Royal family. He ends with billions and buys a yacht worth round half a billion, a magnificent French chateau, and, at that time, a mystery bidder puts in a bid for approximately half a billion and acquires ‘Salvator Mundi’. (The bid is actually placed by Saudi Arabian prince Badr bin Abdullah, a close ally and friend of MBS)

A floating billion

Next, the Louvre, Paris is putting on a da Vinci retrospective and, after the masterly marketing campaign put on by Christie’s, they are keen to hang the lost Leonardo.

MBS is known to be in his yacht not far from shore and it is rumoured he has the ‘Salvator Mundi’ on board. However, the Prince has a requirement. He wants ‘Salvator Mundi’ to be hung in the same room as the ‘Mona Lisa’. He negotiates the loan of his artwork with both President Macron and the directors of the Louvre and everything would appear to be lining up. The ‘Salvator Mundi’ is included in the retrospectives marketing material and the international art world is holding its collective breath ‘till it can view the treasure. But …. no show.

Rumour has it that the Louvre wouldn’t agree to the placement, as this would almost be its confirmation of the work’s authenticity. Prince MBS picks up his toys and leaves. The Louvre goes on with its da Vinci retrospective minus ‘Salvator Mundi’

My interest?

I first became really interested in ‘Salvator Mundi’ round the opening of Abu Dhabi’s Louvre as it was advertised to be hung in prize position in this new art institution.

Of course there was the Louvre’s superb architecture by Jean Nouvel, and also the magnificent permanent and on loan works in this new international art destination but I felt great disappointment on arrival that the work was not there:) (see my visit to Louvre Abu Dhabi here.)

Post Script

The belief is that the Prince is now holding onto the image to hang in the Saudi Arabian cultural centre, Al-`Ula, as he wants Saudi Arabia post-oil, to be an international art centre (similar to the Louvre Abu Dhabi).

Some have suggested MBS fell for the work as it depicted a young man with a beard who changed the world. Others, that he wanted ownership of a invaluable and revered piece of Christian iconography to augment his power …either is strange as those of Muslin faith are not allowed to possess images of prophets.

Go figure.

(*I have to add that this is the same Prince who commanded the sickening murder of Jamal Khashoggi (more here). He is a completely disgusting individual.)

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