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How the World’s Priciest Painting Ended Up in the Hands of a Notorious Killer

·6-min read
Sony Pictures Classics
Sony Pictures Classics

When treasure-hunting art collectors Alexander Parish and Robert Simon purchased a Salvator Mundi painting from a New Orleans auction house in 2005, they had no idea they were making the veritable find of the century: an apparent work by none other than Leonardo da Vinci. Considering that such a discovery hadn’t happened in almost 100 years, they knew they’d hit the jackpot—provided, of course, they could verify its authenticity. That turned out to be a controversial quest, and it forms the foundation of The Lost Leonardo, a documentary that not only asks whether this noteworthy painting is real, but whether, given the circumstances of the insane art world, its genuineness really matters.

Premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival ahead of a fall theatrical debut, Andreas Koefoed’s film is a surprisingly suspenseful—not to mention disheartening—story about the intertwined modern relationship between art, money and politics, and the various means by which one-of-a-kind masterpieces are now treated as capital by the wealthy and powerful. At its center is the Salvator Mundi, which depicts Jesus Christ and was originally thought to have been authored by one of Da Vinci’s many disciples. Since it was severely damaged upon acquisition, Parish and Simon hired famed restorer Dianne Modestini to repair it, and during the course of that lengthy process—which inevitably left the painting with more restored elements than original ones—she deduced, thanks in part to the Mona Lisa-ish way in which Christ’s lip was crafted, that it had been authored by Leonardo himself.

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Modestini’s word held great sway, but it wasn’t definitive, which compelled Parish and Simon to convince Luke Syson at London’s National Gallery to take a look. Syson gathered global Da Vinci experts to examine the Salvator Mundi, and it’s there that The Lost Leonardo first mires itself in intrigue. Syson’s group of professionals were all taken with the painting, if not ready to proclaim anything conclusive, and yet Syson nonetheless chose to attribute the Salvator Mundi to Da Vinci in a subsequent National Gallery show—thereby giving it a stamp of approval that raised many eyebrows. Such skepticism was amplified by the absence of a comprehensive provenance (i.e. a historical accounting of its ownership and movement), as well as by the revelation that Modestini, the painting’s restorer and first champion, had a vested interest in its sale. Though she denies being motivated by profit in Koefoed’s film, Modestini admits she was handsomely compensated when Parish and Simon eventually sold the work for $83 million.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Dianne Modestini and Ashok Roy inspecting the Naples copy of the<em> Salvator Mundi</em> in 2019 </p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Sony Pictures Classics</div>

Dianne Modestini and Ashok Roy inspecting the Naples copy of the Salvator Mundi in 2019

Sony Pictures Classics

Thus the Salvator Mundi changed hands once again, this time to Yves Bouvier, a Swiss financier who promptly stored it in one of his lucrative freeports—an airport-situated vault (like the one prominently featured in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet) that allows for the tax-free sale and storage of lucrative items. His compositions steeped in rich, painterly shadows and textures, director Koefoed lays out the logistics of billionaire wheeling-and-dealing with the same stylishly composed clarity that he brings to the rest of his tale, which soon fixates on a collection of characters who view the painting not as a lost treasure to be philanthropically enjoyed by the world, but as a commodity from which they can financially or politically gain. For Bouvier, the Salvator Mundi was another in a long line of items he could sell to his Russian oligarch client Dmitry Rybolovlev at a steep markup, and The Lost Leonardo generates jaw-dropping humor from its detailed description of the fake-auction ruse that Bouvier perpetrated in order to get Rybolovlev to buy the Salvator Mundi from him for $127.5 million, this after Bouvier had only paid $83 million for it.

This was standard practice for Bouvier, and it got him into hot water when Rybolovlev discovered that he’d been taken—and not for the first time. Bouvier had pocketed upwards of $1 billion from Rybolovlev over the years, and the Russian responded to this news by driving Bouvier’s fortunes into the ground, and then demanding that his entire art collection be sold, thus putting the Salvator Mundi back on the market. From there, The Lost Leonardo turns its gaze to auction houses such as Christie’s, which—following a global marketing tour that positioned the painting as the “Male Mona Lisa,” and included the participation of none other than Leonardo DiCaprio—sold it in 2017 for a record-shattering $450.3 million to an anonymous buyer. That individual didn’t remain anonymous for long, however, since it soon became clear that the painting’s new owner was war crimes-perpetrating, Jamal Khashoggi-executing Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a murderer</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty</div>

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a murderer

Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty

According to The Lost Leonardo, the reason MBS wanted the Salvator Mundi had to do with the true value of priceless art, which is not only employed as collateral for enormous business deals, but as tourist attractions for museums—drawing in millions and, in the process, legitimizing institutions and countries as preeminent cultural destinations. MBS viewed the Salvator Mundi as a means of transforming Saudi Arabia into a must-visit nation, and like everyone else involved in this saga, the actual authenticity of the painting was beside the point; what was important was having reputable sources claim it was legit so everyone could get their piece of the transactional pie. It was, it appears, an agreed-upon narrative that became true because everyone wanted it to be so, not out of any sense of art-history responsibility but simply out of greed.

Leave it to New York Magazine’s senior art critic Jerry Saltz, then, to brutally hammer home the reality of the situation surrounding the Salvator Mundi. Refusing to mince words, Saltz proves the fiery disbelieving voice of The Lost Leonardo, railing against the work as a “made-up piece of junk” that became a phenomenon solely due to its ability to reap windfalls for anyone even remotely connected to it. “It is no more real than any of the other dreamed-up scams and schemes by people that may not mean to be flim-flamming, but in the end they all went along for the ride,” he states. “Which is the lesson of our time. I go along with the lie, I don’t say anything, because I don’t want to be kicked off the island of love, of power, of money, of influence.”

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