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?
At any rate, it appears her opinion went a long way towards persuading the National Gallery in London, which included it in its 2012 Da Vinci show as an original, which boosted the gallery’s global prestige immensely. The Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev bought it in 2013 for $127.5m via Swiss broker Yves Bouvier, known for warehousing super-valuable commodities in tax-free freeports. And in 2018, after an auctioneers’ sale campaign that used Leonardo DiCaprio in the video (maybe they’d use Vincent Gallo for a Van Gogh), Rybolovlev reportedly sold it for $450m to Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, who wanted it to boost his country’s post-oil tourist economy as a global centre for art. Artworks like this are needed by super-rich people so their wealth can be easily transported and discreetly stored, and by the rich and powerful who want stage props for their own prestige. Perhaps Da Vinci should have painted Christ throwing the art dealers out of the temple.
The Lost Leonardo is released on 10 September in cinemas.