September 10, 2021
The story of the hotly disputed discovery and sales of a purported new Leonardo da Vinci work doesn’t paint the art market in a flattering light
The Lost Leonardo review – attribution and avarice on the trail of Salvator Mundi
Here is the bizarre story of the Salvator Mundi, or Saviour of the World; a tale of cynicism, power worship and greed, like a stage play by Ben Jonson. It is a mysterious painting from about 1500, showing Jesus with his right hand raised in blessing and the left holding a glass globe, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, or partly to him, or maybe to a near-contemporary student or copyist – but in any case declared to be the original work of the master by a group of experts and dealers in 2012. And as with all documentaries about art, we are left uneasily wondering if the galleries of the world are full of “wrong attributions” or straight-up fakes.
This rackety piece, much damaged and overpainted, was bought for $1,175 (£680) in 2005 by two shrewd US dealers at a New Orleans auction, and the documentary incidentally interviews art critic and sceptic Jerry Saltz who raucously asks: how the heck did this Italian Renaissance painting find its way to New Orleans? The buyers brought in the distinguished expert and art restorer Dianne Modestini to clean up the painting, allowing her to build up her own gradual emotional investment. Modestini declared herself convinced, not least by its extraordinary and almost comic resemblance to the Mona Lisa – and, for me, incidentally, the documentary should have discussed this point a lot more. Is this cheesy “Male Mona Lisa” look a devastating point for the authenticators? Or more evidence of an absurd farce?
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