The Leonardo Business

The Salvator Mundi on display at Christie’s, 2017. AP Photo / Kristy Wigglesworth

The Leonardo Business. I stole this phrase from Martin Kemp, who deploys it in Living with Leonardo to describe the industry—the manic, late-capitalist dreamworld—that has attached itself to the concept of Leonardo da Vinci. In 2017, a painting attributed to Leonardo had the dubious honor of becoming “the world’s most expensive painting,” sold at auction by Christie’s for almost half a billion dollars ($450,312,500, with a hammer price of 400 million US dollars, plus another $50.3 million or so in fees). Since the sale, the painting has disappeared from public view, but it hasn’t lost its hold on the public imagination. 

The Salvator Mundi spawned, first, Ben Lewis’s true-life art thriller, The Last Leonardo, and then two feature-length documentaries (The Lost Leonardo and Savior for Sale). As Kemp pointed out in the introduction to Living with Leonardo, the artist “inspires studious devotion and untrammelled fantasy in equal measure.” Leonardo’s life and work, Kemp notes, have “become repositories for wild theories to a degree not matched by other figures.” Everything about this latest chapter in the very long story of Leonardo confirms Kemp’s assessment.

We can’t discuss the Salvator Mundi without bringing up the elephant in the room: Is it a Leonardo? 

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Perhaps this is not the right question to ask of the painting, in the sense that perhaps it is not necessarily the most accurate question to ask of a Renaissance painting, which was probably made in a workshop and touched by many hands. But it is the question that gives the painting value. Consider the value of a painting that has been determined to be an autograph Leonardo—that is, one painted largely by Leonardo’s own hands–through the consensus of the majority of the Leonardisti (art historians who are specialists in the study of Leonardo and his circle), and then consider the value of a painting by one of Leonardo’s students or followers. Or worse—a mere copy, perhaps even from the wrong century. And the worst—a forgery.

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These are the basics of connoisseurship, and if you are an art historian, you had to learn these at some point in your student years. The Last Leonardo is only partly about Leonardo and the Salvator Mundi. It is also, in large part, about how different players in the art world–in “the Leonardo business,” as Kemp put it–went about practicing connoisseurship, and it is largely around the question of how to practice connoisseurship that the story turns. Lewis once told an interviewer that in writing The Last Leonardo, “I wanted to write an art history book that wasn’t an art history book. I wanted to write a thriller about a heist — I don’t mean that in a negative way. But two dealers find this painting and pay a thousand dollars for it, and 12 years later it’s worth $450 million. That’s a Guy Ritchie film. Or ‘Point Break.’”

Only, instead of a bank robbery, the heist in this story involves potentially faulty connoisseurship and a misattribution. 

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The so-called heist only happens towards the end of the book. Much of The Last Leonardo concerns the long road to that fateful Christie’s auction—how the New York-based Old Master dealer Robert Simon and his business partner, Alex Parish, came to bid on the Salvator Mundi, and how the two dealers, together with Diane Modestini, transformed that wreck of a painting into the object that would fetch almost half a billion US dollars at auction. Although most of the attention lavished upon the Salvator Mundi has focused on the painting’s journey out of a Russian oligarch’s freeport storage unit and into the auction spotlight at Christie’s, the first segment of the painting’s 21st-century rediscovery is the most interesting part of the story. It is also the part of the story that is the most revealing, that tells outsiders the most about how the Old Master art market works.

Lewis is adept at painting psychological portraits of the main players in his story (only Martin Kemp really gets skewered, even Dmitry Rybolovlev and Yves Bouvier receive relatively sympathetic treatments). Anyone who has tried to make it in academia will sympathize with Robert Simon, who is baldly honest about why he abandoned the academic track for the art world: “The basic truth is that I could not find an academic position in a place I liked.” And anyone who has bristled at the elitism and exclusivity cultivated by blue-chip galleries and auction houses will warm to Alex Parish–outsider and underdog. Lewis lumps Parish in with the “foot soldiers, bottom-feeders, and also-rans” at the very bottom of the art-world hierarchy, and this, oddly, made me like Parish more, as did Parish’s own statement, “I’ve been down to a suitcase more than once in my life.” I always root for the underdog in a story, and in Lewis’s story, Parish is clearly the underdog. (Well, Parish, and the man who inherited the Salvator Mundi from his aunt, a man named Basil Hendrix, Jr., also known as “Tookie.”) 

Parish could not be more different from the other players in this story. He did not come from privilege, he did not attend any famous universities, he had no personal capital, nor did he have useful social connections. What Parish did have, at least in this telling of the story, was an eye–especially an eye for “sleepers,” which Lewis informs us are “undervalued paintings that had been consigned to auction.” Dealers made money on sleepers by flipping them. Is it any surprise that this was also happening during the heyday of the real-estate flip? These were the years when Americans functioned under a collective mania for flipping, convinced that the world was full of undervalued properties whose true value was just lying inert, out there, waiting to be released into the world in the form of profit. 

The painting’s journey into the 21st-century art market began in 2005, when Parish discovered it, as Lewis tells us, “listed for sale in an online catalogue of an obscure auction house in New Orleans, the St. Charles Gallery.” Parish and Simon paid a total of one thousand dollars for the painting. In Living with Leonardo, Martin Kemp describes how Simon brought the painting to Diane and Mario Modestini wrapped in “a bin liner.” Diane and Mario were both highly-regarded art restoration experts. Simon sought out the Modestinis not only for their reputation as restorers and conservationists–Lewis explains that Mario “had been invited to move to America in 1949 and become the conservator of the Kress Collection”–but also because “Mario was an expert on early Leonardo.” According to Simon, Mario Modestini told him, “It is by a very great painter, probably a generation after Leonardo.” 

Mario had retired from the trade, so Simon engaged Diane to work on the restoration of this painting. From this point onwards, the story takes on a more conventional form. As Diane Modestini began to tackle the restoration, Simon and Parish sought experts who could help them establish the painting’s identity and provenance. Lewis draws out this part of the story, and his telling is not always straightforward or easy to follow. It suffices to say that the painting was anointed as a Leonardo in 2008, when the National Gallery convened a panel of Leonardo specialists, ostensibly to look at the National Gallery’s newly-restored Virgin of the Rocks. The meeting included, from the National Gallery’s side Nicholas Penny and Luke Syson, and from the world of the Leonardisti, the following five scholars: Pietro Marani, Maria Teresa Fiorio, David Alan Brown, Carmen Bambach, and Martin Kemp. Almost no one agrees on what actually took place at the meeting, or if the painting was actually authenticated during that meeting as a Leonardo.

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In addition to Lewis’s Last Leonardo, and various press accounts of the research and connoisseurship associated with the Salvator Mundi, there is now also a book, co-authored by Robert Simon, Margaret Dalivalle (the art historian engaged by Simon and Parish to research the painting’s provenance), and Martin Kemp. Kemp also writes about his involvement with the painting in his memoir, Living with Leonardo. In other words, there is more than enough material to do one or two Rashoman-esque treatments of this material. The painting has spawned its own sector of the Leonardo business.

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Most audiences outside of the art world find the painting’s recent history more fascinating than the scholarly and connoisseurial questions that revolve around the work. They are fascinated by the sale to Rybolovlev and what the fallout from that sale revealed about the shadowy world of freeports. They are interested in learning more about the sorts of financial (and other crimes) facilitated by things like art sales and freeports. Audiences continue to follow the painting’s journey with interest–from freeport to auction spotlight, and back to obscurity. Part of the fascination has to do with the extraordinarily high price paid for the painting–how does something like that just vanish? Who pays almost half a billion dollars for a painting only to sock it away somewhere? Why hasn’t it appeared in any recent Leonardo exhibitions? It was supposed to appear in the Louvre’s recent blockbuster Leonardo show, but it did not. The Prado did not request its inclusion in their most recent Leonardo exhibition. In the catalogue to the Prado show, the painting is listed under “attributed works, workshop or authorised and supervised by Leonardo.” But the larger part of the fascination derives from the way that the painting permits outsiders a glimpse through the keyhole, at the lives and affairs of the ultra-wealthy. 

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The high-flying art market is an epiphenomenon of our world’s increasing economic inequality. For all of my sympathy for Alex Parish, the underdog in the Salvator Mundi story, I understand why a good number of people, especially people outside of the art world, derive some schadenfreude from the possibility that “the last Leonardo” might be a fake, or at least something worth much less than half a billion dollars. The oligarchs have already taken so much. They seem to have stacked all the odds in their own favor: they always win. In this version of the story, where it turns out that the Saudis have vastly overpaid for the Salvator Mundi, we are the underdogs. Our prize, when we win, is the pleasure of watching them lose. 


About the Author: Cynthia Houng is a writer, art historian, and occasional artist based in New York City. Learn more about her work. She is also one of the founding editors of Ars Longa.

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