“Savior for Sale: Da Vinci’s Lost Masterpiece?” reconsidering
Why are we so fascinated by the world of fine art and scandal? Why do we flock to shows about plagiarism like Netflix’s four-part sequel This is theft: the biggest art theft in the world (2021) or breaking the commandments for fun and profit in it the art of stealing (2009) On the controversy and history of the Barnes Foundation in Pennsylvania? Now we have the scandalous story of a Leonardo da Vinci painting El Salvador world In the latest version Lifesaver for Sale: Da Vinci’s Lost Masterpiece? (2021). It’s the second documentary about the painting, the first one I lost Leonardo.
How exactly did a painting found at an auction house in New Orleans end up selling for $1,175 in 2005 for $400 million at Christie’s in 2017? This does not include the $50 million auction house.
The documentary explores the wealth of the “Lost Leonardo” controversy through interviews with key players. Its cast of characters, called “merchant”, “expert”, “journalist”, “right man”, etc., presents a bit like real-life characters Ocean 11. Except for theft, it is the sale of a painting of questionable authenticity for hundreds of millions of dollars.
The central issue in the documentary is the painting’s authenticity, by reviewing each interested party’s reasons behind their decision. The film begins with Robert Simon, aka The Merchant, who was the art dealer who found the painting in 2005 and his belief in the painting based on the discovery of a second thumb in the restoration process. Simon talked about how they considered every possibility, such as the camera changing their mind about the placement of the thumb. In the end, his team decided that the second thumb was a pentagon, a change the artist made that was obscured under the paint. To the viewer, this does not seem like a solid basis for the painting to be an authentic Da Vinci.
Then how the UK National Gallery got involved and invited five experts to look at the painting. One said infinite, the other said yes, and the others were noncommittal. But despite this mysterious meeting of minds, Luke Syson, “The Curator” in the National Gallery, decided to include it in the primary Leonardo exhibition in 2011-2012.
Reminds me of Sharon Waxman The Loot: The Battle for the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World (2008) where she talks about the tradition of legalizing privately owned artworks by displaying them in museum shows or permanent display. In other words, you show this treasure among other treasures to prove that it is a treasure as well. It’s a bit repetitive but an obvious and useful tactic for legitimizing artwork.
As the film moves on to other subsequent tests (or lack thereof) about the painting’s authenticity, what I find most intriguing is the insight it gives to the world of the rich. There is a section where the film focused on Dmitry Rybolovlev, better known as “The Oligarch,” who initially bought the painting for $127.5 million.
At one point, the film talks about how the painting (along with other paintings in its collection) was purchased through a separate company Mei Invest LTD, rather than owned directly by Rybolovlev, for tax purposes. It’s an excellent showcase of what Brooke Harrington is talking about in 2016 Capital Without Borders: Wealth Managers and the One Percent. Harrington talks about how the super-rich use phantom companies, often LLCs, as a way to protect their assets from taxes, divorce, and other events of diminishing wealth. It is also helpful to protect the anonymity of the person because knowing who actually owns the assets can be a challenge.
Going further, there is a notable scene where the painting appears to be stored away in a warehouse with other Rybolovlev masterpieces. It’s a bit like the last scene of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark When the ark is wrapped and sent to a storehouse of many treasures. In addition to the entire facet company aspect, art feels like just another asset to be hoarded rather than the enjoyment of a work of art.
Or there is a wonderful scene with Chris Dercon, president of the Réunion des musées nationalaux Grand Palais (RMN-Grand Palais), when he talks about how the Saudis asked him to help them with their vast cultural project, saying, “Sometimes you need missionaries and mercenaries like me to open the doors.” The movie calls it “Mercenaries”, of course. With huge amounts of money, anything is possible, even access to the best institutions.
The documentary also shows that when the stakes are high, everyone wants a piece. Shortcuts may be taken, and people may be over-optimistic (at best) or ignore important information that may affect the selling price. Even without questions of authenticity, there are scams with just selling paintings to the rich and famous. Scott Rayburn, “The Journalist” The New York Times, he aptly says, “The art world is full of people who want to make huge sums of money from the rich.”
Given the subject matter of the work, I feel there has been little omission about the religious meaning of the painting. There are some indications that many owners wanted the painting due to its subject matter but a little deeper dive might be interesting. What does it mean to sell a painting of Jesus for that much money? What are the theological implications?
The film comes close to showing the importance of the topic when it shows footage of audience reactions to the panel at Christie’s where the film shows people crying or their mouths open in awe. They were clearly receiving incredible reactions to the painting. (This is also a sign of the great marketing strategy Kristi used.) Then again, it may have taken a turn in the film’s exploration of the works of the art world.
In the end, we get an answer to the question of why we are so fascinated by these stories. Expert Martin Kemp concludes, “If I’m wrong, no one will die. Someone has lost a lot of money.” Ultimately, the story is about art, the rich, and their money. Unlike most True Crime podcasts, books, and shows, no one has ever died, gone to prison, or faced the destruction of their family and friends. Here’s just money and reputation on the line, so perhaps less guilt watching how these actions unfold.
The movie is available to stream on Apple TV+/iTunes and Amazon Prime Video platforms as well as in theaters.