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The saga of the Salvator Mundi is catnip for film-makers

29 July 2021

The ‘lost Leonardo’, if anyone could have forgotten, is the painting of the Salvator Mundi – Christ as the Saviour of the World – acquired at a modest auction in New Orleans in 2005 for $1,175 and sold at Christie’s New York in 2017 for $450m. Those facts alone were sufficient to draw unprecedented media interest in this small Renaissance panel, but as the details of the ever more fantastical – and as yet unresolved – fate of the world’s most expensive painting began to emerge, peopled with an extraordinary cast of characters, it was inevitable that someone would want to turn this tale into a film. First came French director Antoine Vitkine’s documentary The Savior for Sale, released in April this year. Hard on its heels follows the more polished The Lost Leonardo by Danish director Andreas Koefoed, released this summer.

It has to be said that theirs was an unenviable task. For this is a story of baroque complexity – several stories, in fact, each one deserving of its own serious exploration. First is the discovery of the painting itself, and the processes of restoration and authentication, neither of which were without controversy. Then there is the panel’s sale, several times over. We know it belonged to the Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev because he sued his art agent Yves Bouvier on discovering the Swiss had charged a mark-up of $44.5m. He consigned it to auction at Christie’s, whose own pre-sale film recording the public response to the image was – as Koefoed’s film reminded me that I wrote at the time – a triumph of the dark art of marketing.

What might be described as the epilogue is no less dramatic, given that the New York Times revealed the painting’s unlikely buyer as the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman (it was allegedly spotted on his superyacht). Salvator Mundi has not been seen in public since this purchase; promised loans to the Louvre Abu Dhabi and to Paris for the Louvre’s blockbuster Leonardo show in 2019–20 were rescinded without explanation. The latter loan cancellation came after extensive research had been carried out by the Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France (C2RMF), the results of which were written up in a book to accompany the Louvre’s exhibition, in which – contrary to claims made about the Louvre in The Savior for Sale – the attribution to Leonardo seems to have been confirmed. This publication appeared in the museum’s bookshop for one day in December 2019 before being withdrawn – but not before a few copies had been snapped up and their contents leaked to the outside world.

Again, these are the bare bones of a story, and the flaws of both films lie in how they have chosen to clothe them. For what is striking here is that almost all of the principal players involved in the latter parts of this story ­– the Louvre, the National Gallery, Christie’s, the Saudi Ministry of Culture – refused to participate in the films themselves or comment more generally. An absence of hard facts has made way for a great deal of opinion, speculation and innuendo, with the emphasis, irresistibly, on the sensational. In our post-truth age, all opinions are considered equal, however uninformed, and an inherent distrust of authority is manifested by the way art historians, conservators and curators are presented as self-serving. Even so, the fierce integrity of the painting’s restorer Dianne Modestini shines through Koefoed’s film. She is haunted by the painting, for personal and professional reasons, and pleads for its return to the public sphere.

Sveinung Nygaard’s atmospheric – even elegiac – score for The Lost Leonardo reminded me how sad I felt at the time about how this fragile Renaissance painting, a shadow of its former self, could be so ruthlessly hijacked, pimped and exploited. Both films play to the gallery in offering a modern-day fable of epic greed, tax evasion, money laundering and geopolitical machination. The Salvator Mundi is merely a pawn in all of this, doomed to be incarcerated in the vaults of some Swiss or Singaporean freeport. (Nothing new here: Leonardo’s Ginevra de’ Benci was long hidden in the Prince of Liechtenstein’s wine cellar in Vaduz, until in 1967 it was bought by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.) As for the painting itself, wherever it is, it remains an enigma.

The Lost Leonardo is released 13 August in the US, and 10 September in the UK.

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