We are re-releasing our podcast with journalist and author Ben Lewis in anticipation of our forthcoming discussion with Robert Simon. We talked with Ben in depth about his book, The Last Leonardo: The Secret Lives of the World’s Most Expensive Painting, about the history and ultimate sale by Christie’s auction house in November 2017 for just over $450.3 million of the painting Salvator Mundi attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci. Our next episode with Robert Simon will revisit this story from a different perspective.
Steve Schindler: Hi, I’m Steve Schindler.
Katie Wilson-Milne: I’m Katie Wilson-Milne.
Steve Schindler: Welcome to the Art Law Podcast, a monthly podcast exploring the places where art intersects with and interferes with the law.
Katie Wilson-Milne: The Art Law Podcast is sponsored by the law firm of Schindler Cohen & Hochman LLP, a premiere litigation and art law boutique in New York City. Hello, listeners. We are re-releasing our podcast with Ben Lewis about his book, The Last Leonardo, which chronicles the fascinating creation and history and eventual sale of a painting by Leonardo da Vinci called the Salvator Mundi. And we’re re-releasing it now, because our next episode after this one will be an interview with Robert Simon, who is the art dealer profiled in Ben’s book and who we talk about in our conversation with Ben, who discovered the Salvator Mundi that sold in Christie’s in 2017 for almost half a billion dollars. And he discovered that painting at an obscure New Orleans auction house, paid $1,000 for it, and the rest is history. So we thought we’d remind our listeners about the Salvator Mundi and Ben’s fascinating book on its history and the controversies around it before we talk to Robert, so please enjoy. Hi, Steve.
Steve Schindler: Hi, Katie.
Katie Wilson-Milne: So, today, we are going to finally talk about the drama-filled discovery and sale of the painting Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci, that was sold on November 15, 2017 at Christie’s in New York at the Post-War and Contemporary Evening Sale for the reasonable sum of $450 million including the fees, and that makes it the most expensive painting ever sold. The work was sold in that sale by a Russian oligarch and it was purchased by a Saudi prince. And it has now disappeared from view. It’s thought to be in Switzerland. But all we really know is that it’s not on public display at this point and we don’t know when the world will see it again. The painting is said to be the last discovered Leonardo da Vinci work on earth and is the subject of much critical analysis and as we will discuss today, a fascinating new book. As many of our listeners may already know, there is tremendous disagreement about the painting’s authenticity and restoration process, which is all part of what we will dive into today.
Steve Schindler: So, we are here today with Ben Lewis, the author of the soon-to-be-released book entitled, The Last Leonardo: The Secret Lives of the World’s Most Expensive Painting. Ben Lewis is an art critic, author, and documentary filmmaker and visiting fellow at The Warburg Institute in London, and has written widely about art and culture for the international press. His award-winning documentary films include The Beatles, Hippies and Hells Angels: Inside the Crazy World of Apple and The [Great] Contemporary Art Bubble. Ben has an MA in history and art history from Trinity College at Cambridge University. So, Ben welcome to the podcast and congratulations on the book.
Ben Lewis: Thanks for having me in.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Steve and I have both read it in its entirety, which is a singing endorsement.
Steve Schindler: And it’s riveting. We really do recommend it. How did you become interested in this work?
Ben Lewis: Well, I’ve been tracking the Salvator Mundi for quite a few years, ever since Sam Knight published the story in The New Yorker about the so-called “Bouvier Affair.” And Yves Bouvier had sold the Salvator Mundi to Dmitry Rybolovlev, this Russian oligarch, for $127.5 million. But you know, so, he discovered the day before, he bought the picture for $80 million, and I think that’s probably makes him, in sort of a dollar-per-minute terms the most successful art dealer in the history of the world. And it was an extraordinary, you know, story of subterfuge and of the blurred lines in the art market. Bouvier sold Dmitry Rybolovlev, as you probably know, in total $2 billion worth of art over roughly a decade and his markup was a billion. And all the time, he gave Dmitry Rybolovlev at least the impression that he was working for him as his agent.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Yeah. And just for our listeners who don’t probably know this, Bouvier was running a very high-profile freeport in Geneva and then in Singapore and other places. But he was sort of moonlighting as a dealer on the side, because he had all this inside knowledge about where are all the most valuable art in the world was and how it was moving and he somehow developed this relationship with a Russian oligarch, who used him to build a mega collection but what was really going on is Bouvier was buying this work and reselling it with a huge price differential, which his ostensible client didn’t know about.
Steve Schindler: That’s right.
Ben Lewis: Yeah, and you know, but anyway, so I followed that and you know, but there wasn’t much I could do with it, because I’m not really going to be able to sit down with Yves Bouvier and Dmitry Rybolovlev and they’re going to tell me the inside story. But then when it sold a couple of years later in 2017 at Christie’s auction for $450 million and you know, I just saw the 500 year history of this painting. It just was, you know, the whole thing was just amazing — possibly in the court of Charles I, you know, lost in storerooms in the 18th century, you know, in American suburbia for 50 years between 1958, it’s crazy and 2005. And it’s like, I mean, just as an art historical object, you know, nothing has sunk so low or risen so high. I mean, how amazing and then, you know, financially, these two dealers rediscovered it in 2005. They found it in a really obscure auction house and they brought it for $1175 bucks. I found out the real price right there. They told the world it was around $10,000 bucks.
Steve Schindler: That’s so interesting, because they just didn’t want the world to know that they had bought it so inexpensively that somehow $10,000 would give it a bit more credibility?
Ben Lewis: Yeah. Exactly, well, yes, I mean, that’s why, yeah.
Katie Wilson-Milne: So, you decided to do a biography basically of this painting?
Ben Lewis: Exactly, yeah, a biography of the picture. And with that a sort of cross section through the whole history of the art market, because one of the misconceptions we have about the art market, which I had, you know, when I did my documentary, The Great Contemporary Art Bubble, “oh look, the art market today, it’s totally different from how it used to be. People are speculating, people are buying art for investment. You know, there’s no transparency. It’s all insider dealing and conflict of interest.” But then, you know, if you look at this picture, you can study the whole history of the art market and actually it was very much like that 500 years ago. They didn’t have all the complex financial instruments then that we have now. That’s different. But all the other stuff is the same. And in a way one of the messages of the book to be not, “oh look, how terrible the art world has changed now.” It’s like no, the problem with the art market is it’s the same as it always was. You know, the rest of the world has changed. We’ve got all these regulations and oversight covering other, financial markets and commodities market, but the art market is still—
Katie Wilson-Milne: Still out on its own.
Ben Lewis: It’s still shrouded in a—
Steve Schindler: It’s very resistant to change in that way.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Yeah, and one of the, you know, really interesting compelling things about your book is not only is it a biography of this painting, it is history of the art market through the travels of this painting and the possibilities of this painting. So, I thought, it was really interesting for that reason. So, let’s, let’s rewind a bit and talk about the provenance of the painting from the beginning. Now, in your discussion about the role that inventories have played in the research that’s been done about this paining and piecing together the provenance, you wrote and I’ll quote, “The result is that provenance histories for works of art from before the 19th century are frequently assembled from a range of probabilities, which reinforce each other. Such structures can be precarious, wobbling between the likely and the hypothetical. The evidence is often circumstantial but art history is a discipline that studies products of the imagination. A certain flexibility is permitted. While the marvelous objects themselves have been known to inspire the most rigorous of academic minds to meld fact with fantasy.” I thought that was a great quote, and you have many other like that about the limits of provenance research and what we can really discover and the fact that there are human beings behind this research who get invested in a result, and that’s sort of impossible to prevent. So, how did a da Vinci work sort of weave into that story and that complexity. Is that related to how da Vinci in his workshop operated which I think maybe unfamiliar to people who are more focused on the contemporary art market and how does the way that da Vinci worked plan to how difficult it is now to do that provenance research?
Ben Lewis: That’s like the whole book in a nutshell.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Yeah, so…
Ben Lewis: I’m very happy to try and answer that.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Start at the beginning, wherever you want.
Ben Lewis: Well, like many other Renaissance artists, Leonardo had a studio, and the studio produced a range of works which, you can sort of divide in Leonardo’s case into, you know, autograph Leonardo, which is a composition he designed and he painted most of himself, and maybe the odd bit of drapery was painted by an assistant. And then you have Leonardo plus workshop, it’s basically really sort of workshop plus Leonardo. That’s like Leonardo designed it, one of his assistants or two of his assistants painted it, he supervised it and finished it off. It’s a distinct category. Workshop plus Leonardo applies to few pictures like the London Virgin of the Rocks and the Madonna of the Yarnwinder. Then you have another category, which is like pure workshop, based on a design by Leonardo, perhaps put together out of a few of his drawings or one cartoon composition, painted only by, you know, an assistant. And then you have assistants, you know, not based on a design by Leonardo, might have the odd hand or something that maybe they got familiar on a drawing. But basically, it’s the work of assistants, quality varies, can be pretty good, can be terrible. And then you have one more category, category number five, later copy. And the whole debate about this $450 million painting, you know, when you look at it as a normal punter, you’re going to be thinking, is it real Leonardo, or is it a fake? But actually, you know, the art historical consensus is quite good on this. It says, it’s either an autographed Leonardo or it’s Leonardo plus workshop. That is where the whole debate goes, right. But it just so happens that you know, there’s a huge price differential and quality differential, you know, and in a way geopolitical differential between those two categories. That’s why the disagreements are so bitter, and many of the people who say this is Leonardo, all the big art historians, they’re just simply not prepared to concede that there is this other category called Leonardo plus workshop into which his picture could fall.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Which is still kind of Leonardo, you know, that’s—
Ben Lewis: Well, it’s kind of Leonardo.
Katie Wilson-Milne: It’s still really impressive.
Steve Schindler: It’s Leonardo lite.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Yeah.
Ben Lewis: That’s the crack they slip through, “well, it’s kind of Leonardo.” Everyone agrees that he painted it. But there is a huge difference in quality between autograph Leonardo, these big works with documented and you know, innovative compositions. and Leonardo plus workshop which can be a much more formulated exercise.
Katie Wilson-Milne: But either way, we agree that the discovery of this painting, even if it’s Leonardo plus workshop was an extraordinary find, right? Because it wasn’t even thought to be that when it surfaced in modern day America.
Ben Lewis: Yeah.
Katie Wilson-Milne: So, to pause for a second to reflect on how incredible even the worst case scenario is, I think, it’s important.
Ben Lewis: Yeah, it’s an amazing achievement to find this picture and to bring it back to life the way that Robert Simon, Alex Parish, and Dianne Modestini did yeah.
Steve Schindler: So, before we get to them, because they are fascinating, you’ve used the term “autograph Leonardo,” and what do you mean by that? Because he didn’t actually sign the works, did he? How do we know, what contemporary evidence do we look to, to try to understand whether a work is Leonardo or Leonardo plus studio?
Ben Lewis: Well, in this case, the only way, we can judge whether this work is Leonardo or not is by exercising our powers of connoisseurship. You know, generally autograph Leonardo’s are documented.
Steve Schindler: How so?
Ben Lewis: In contracts or he’s mentioned them in his notebooks or some eye witness has dropped by the studio and noticed that he’s painting x, y and z. And one of the really weird things about this painting, you know, is it’s a picture of Christ, that’s like the biggest subject, you could ever tackle if you’re a Renaissance artist. And Leonardo painted it when he was already a celebrity, we know that, after 1500. But it’s not mentioned in any of his documents.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Is there a robust body of documentation that supports the attribution of other works?
Ben Lewis: Oh, yes.
Katie Wilson-Milne: So, that’s important too, right that there’s a hole, because we know, there’s a lot of paperwork in general, which is amazing that it survived 500 years intact.
Ben Lewis: Well, there is lots of paperwork, you know, or enough paperwork for the other pictures to know that, you know, Leonardo definitely painted them. With this one, there isn’t any paperwork and you know, you’re left looking at the picture and actually, you know, you’re a great Leonardo expert, you’re a Leonardist and you have to decide if it’s got the zing, you know, if you look at it and it’s got this incredible Leonardo sfumato etherial mystery floating out at you, and that blessing hand is so incredibly subtly painted, “oh, my God, that’s a Leonardo!”
Katie Wilson-Milne: That no assistant could have possibly done it.
Ben Lewis: Yeah. The problem with that though, that no assistant could have ever done it, brackets, question mark. The problem with the situation which makes this picture such a joy to study and why everyone can make up their own mind is because the greatest Leonardo experts in the world are divided about it. You know, I mean, amazing. Right down the middle.
Katie Wilson-Milne: So, let’s talk a little bit about, you though, going back to the early 1500s, Leonardo’s in France, you know, he gets to France from Italy. He ends up dying there and he has a great relationship with basically French royalty who become his patrons through the end of his life. And that’s when this painting, you know, likely would have been painted and left his hands. Is that correct? So…
Ben Lewis: Sort of. Leonardo had a relationship with the French court, right, from 1500 onwards. He was getting commissions, being asked to provide the French court, king, and courtiers with paintings. And it seems quite likely that he or his workshop painted this picture for the French court during this period.
Katie Wilson-Milne: And talk a little bit about, one thing that you make clear in your book is that there is documentation of paintings like this that are connected to Leonardo da Vinci but there are many of them and everyone accepts that there’s many versions of this. So, can you talk a little bit about that, the many versions and then, you know, the documentation that does exist, even though there is confusion about which version it’s referring to?
Ben Lewis: That’s the second aspect of the Renaissance workshop, you know the workshop of the Renaissance genius is that not only did he have, you know, a load of assistants but they, you know, they produced copies of the artist’s major work and we know, that Leonardo’s assistants actually produced copies of his great compositions while he painted them. You know, I mean if you came up with like the Mona Lisa or, you know, The Virgin And Child with St. Anne, these were such unbelievably brilliant compositions. They were so mysterious or there was so much incredible narrative compressed into them. They were so revolutionary. You know, he’s light-years ahead of, in imaginative terms, than most of his contemporaries and since, you know, people would copy his pictures because they’d want something, a design that looked that fantastic. So, there’s around 20 different versions of the Salvator Mundi, of greatly varying quality just to make it even more entertainingly, complicated. If you look at all those 20 different versions, you know, the different bits of them are greatly varying quality. You might see a really good orb in one and a really bad hand in that picture and then you might look at another one and see a really bad orb but a really good hand.
Katie Wilson-Milne: And how many of those are workshop paintings or were created around the same time as whatever the original one is or the most Leonardo one is?
Ben Lewis: Do you want me to get more complicated?
Steve Schindler: Sure.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Try.
Ben Lewis: Well, most of them were painted during Leonardo’s lifetime,we think, because of the surface they were painted on, fruitwood or something. But one or two of them, we’ve recently discovered were actually painted after Leonardo died. So, they’re what’s known as later copies. There is one in a castle in Warsaw that was, you know, always attributed to one of Leonardo’s assistants and then they finally got round to doing dendrochronology tests in 2005, which were not widely publicized, and they found actually this picture was painted on French oak around 1585. So, it’s an incredibly, you know, fascinating and complex field. It has to be said that, you know, the Salvator Mundi that Robert Simon and Alex Parish discovered, that is the subject of my book. You know, no doubt, that’s the best one. It’s the best painted one. Question is, you know, whether it’s so well painted it that Leonardo had to have painted a lot of it or whether he painted only a little few bits and pieces.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Yeah. So the history you lay out in your book between 1500 and the early 20th century when this particular, the one that sold at Christie’s, this particular painting surfaces in the U.K., right in the Cook Collection. There’s a lot of documentation,\ you cite to and fascinating, you know, movement between countries and royal courts. Is that research and that history about documentation that could relate to any version of the Salvador Mundi right? It’s not, there’s no way to know that that history and documentation relates to one version or another. Is that fair?
Ben Lewis: You know there’s, as I’m sure you and Steve know, there’s three sources of value in an old master painting. And if you want to play the game of the Salvador Mundi, just got to bear these in mind. One is, you know, authorship, attribution. Who painted it? Second is the history of the picture, the provenance. Where did it come from? How much do we know about it? In who’s collection was it? And the third is the condition to which we can add the restoration, you know. What does it look like today? How much of the original artist’s work is left in the picture. And if we go to provenance, incredibly difficult to establish the provenance of the picture, the true history of a picture like the Salvador Mundi. You know, before 1850, these pictures weren’t photographed of course, because photography hadn’t been invented. So, all you’ve got is sort of these written catalogue entries.
Steve Schindler: Which are Generic in some instances, right?
Ben Lewis: Yeah and you know, how many “Heads of Christ” were produced by, you know, or thought to be produced by Leonardo in his workshop? You know, until the late 19th century, anything that looked vaguely Leonardo was a head of Christ, Would be “Head of Christ” by Leonardo da Vinci. It doesn’t mean that it actually was. It’s very rare that you find dimensions in these old catalogues and when you search for through them, and, you know, as Alex Parish and Robert Simon did, and say, “well where is our Salvator Mundi?” And then you look at Charles I’s inventory from 1649, which is a very famous inventory and often a first port of call, and you open it and you see, “Oh, my God, there it is. A Piece of Christ by Leonardo da Vinci. That’s our picture.” I’m not really sure how they would know that for sure.
Steve Schindler: And there was an issue about the work being stamped because a lot of the history that you discuss is a work makes its way into the collection of Charles I and then there’s some fascinating sort of how that leaves the royal family and then comes back. But a point that you make is that usually, pictures that were in the inventory of Charles I were stamped and this one wasn’t.
Ben Lewis: In the course of my research, I made a little discovery of my own. You know, using Google Translate and my great powers of connoisseurship. You know, I found there was actually another Salvator Mundi painting, which had a Charles I stamp on the back and almost all the pictures in his collection were branded with Charles I on the back. You know, but this picture was in Moscow. Today it’s attributed to Giampietrino, but back in the day, of course, it was attributed to Leonardo and you know, I took this fact to The Art Newspaper, hoping that Robert Simon and Martin Kemp and all the big proponents of the Salvator Mundi would come back with some amazing facts that would demolish my argument. But that hasn’t happened yet.
Katie Wilson-Milne: So give us a general, you know, a general summary to the present day. So, Leonardo paints this work, maybe paints some version of this work in France at the end of his life and then how does it get to England to the court of Charles I and then what do we know after that until we stop knowing?
Ben Lewis: Well, the theory is it’s sort of painted in Leonardo’s studio, some time between 1500 and 1520. Either, it’s sort of painted mostly by an assistant or it’s painted by Leonardo. If it’s painted by Leonardo, it’s his great reckoning with Christianity, with God, which he’s never really talked about properly in his notebooks. But you know, he’s discovering his inner spiritual being and he’s painting the Salvator Mundi and it’s such a serious subject, he’s hiding it from the world. If it’s painted by an assistant, you know, it’s knocked not, he tidies it up and it’s sold or flogged, as we say in England, to a French aristocrat or possibly the French king, though very unlikely. Then, the French king Francis I has it or possibly, one of his nobles, and somehow maybe when a descendent of the French king, Henry IV, when he gives his daughter away in marriage to Charles I, the French king apparently gives his daughter Henrietta Maria this Salvator Mundi as a gift for Henrietta Maria and Charles I, the English king, and she takes it to Britain. Well it’s quite unlikely that a French king would give away one of his Leonardos but anyway, fair enough. That’s the idea. So, it’s in Britain, it’s hanging in the king and queen’s private apartments. You know, there’s a civil war in Britain, parliament versus the king. The king loses, Charles I is beheaded and all his art collection is then sold off by parliament, you know, to pay off his creditors. And there it is, in this inventory, this sort of sales catalogue, the King Charles I collection there is, apparently, the Salvator Mundi, or at least a “Piece of Christ.” So the picture seems to be sold off, right, and enters the collection of one of the creditors, who puts it up for sale, but it isn’t actually somehow sold, and it ends up back in the collection of Charles II. Charles II has the picture, and it stays in his collection possibly in his successors’, James II and Queen Anne and sooner or later, it finds its way into an auction house in London, in 1763. Alright, well a apparently, it’s auctioned for two pounds ten p which is about 3,000 pounds in today’s money. Again, somehow that feels incredibly unlikely, this sort of Leonardo must have been in appalling condition or some kind of confusion for this, for a Leonardo da Vinci to be sold, for such a small amount of money. But anyway, the theory presented by the proponents of the picture is, who say it’s an autograph Leonardo, is this is where it is sold, you know, and it then sort of disappears for a 150 years.
Steve Schindler: Right. That’s staggering, really, a 150 years, you know, from my perspective is a long time and there’s just no record of where it was for so long.
Ben Lewis: It’s all really weird but to be fair, they lost one of Leonardo’s notebooks, The Madrid Codices. I think there’s a couple of volumes of The Madrid Codices. They lost them for 200 years. They were only discovered in like 1967. So, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility. If you—
Katie Wilson-Milne: And presumably some, you know, British nobility could have, or aristocrat, could have bought this painting and it just stayed in their family collection for 150 years, which plenty of paintings did. So, it’s not…
Ben Lewis: Or a Catholic institution, it could have hung in the corridor somewhere.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Right, that’s not implausible. So, but somehow at that time, it leaves the royal family.
Ben Lewis: Okay. So, then it rocks up again. The first time we know it really exist is in 1908 when there’s a photograph of it, heavily overpainted, it’s all distorted and damaged in the Cook Collection. Sir Francis Cook apparently had the greatest art collection in Britain in the late 19th century after Queen Victoria. We know, he bought it 1900. So, there is this picture and possibly, you know, you look back at it and it’s all stayed in Britain for hundreds of years and you can trace it back to Charles I. The problem is, there is a hundred different ways for these kinds of Renaissance pictures to wash up in the British art market. Every time, there’s an upheaval in Europe, British art dealers, and London was the center of the art trade in the 19th century, you know the world center, they’d go over to France or Italy and scoop up a load of cheap art off the aristocrats, bring it back to Britain and auction it in London and there’s at least 30 or so different entries in the Getty Sales Index for Salvator Mundis or Heads of Christ by Leonardo da Vinci or followers of Leonardo da Vinci.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Which can’t all be the same painting.
Ben Lewis: Can’t all be the same painting and most of them aren’t— won’t be Leonardo’s.
Katie Wilson-Milne: So when you say the first time we really know anything is 1908 when Francis Cook buys this painting or it surfaces in a photograph from his collection. How do we know, that, that’s the exact same copy that was sold at Christie’s?
Ben Lewis: The hand.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Okay.
Ben Lewis: I mean one of the beauties of this story is, you have to decide if a hand is by the hand. Because the best preserved piece of this painting appropriately is the blessing hand. You know, “Is it by Leonardo’s blessed hand?” you can sort of ask yourself.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Yeah. So the first time we know that this exact painting surfaces is actually only in 1908 and that’s because the other versions of it don’t have the same hand configuration?
Ben Lewis: Yeah. The hand isn’t as well painted or it’s slightly different, or you know, different set of shadows, slightly different lighting.
Katie Wilson-Milne: And isn’t there a mark, too, on the back of the painting that identifies that it was part of the Cook Collection?
Ben Lewis: There is a mark on the back of the painting CC106. Robert Simon saw that mark, of course, when he bought the picture and then he looked that up and in the Cook Collection catalogue that was published in 1907, there you can see number 106, you know, Salvator Mundi, attributed not even to one of Leonardo’s followers but said to be a copy of a painting by one of Leonardo’s followers. I mean, you just do not get lower down on the art historical food chain than that.
Katie Wilson-Milne: So, how do we get from 1908 to Robert Simon and Alex Parish buying this painting? And then tell us who they are.
Ben Lewis: Oh, man, it’s such a good story. The picture is in the Cook Collection in 1908. That’s where we left it and it stays in the Cook Collection.
Katie Wilson-Milne: In London.
Ben Lewis: In London until 1958. It’s considered, you know, a very poor quality work of art. It’s stuck in a basement during World War II. The house is hit by bombs. Somehow the picture survives. You know, and then it’s auctioned. The Cook family in selling off their works bit by bit and they have a big auction in 1958, and they’re selling off a lot of work and one of the works is this Salvator Mundi, which in the Sotheby’s catalogue, the Sotheby’s auction is attributed to Boltraffio. And at this auction is every major art dealer in Europe, right. Plus Sir Kenneth Clark, the great art historian who wrote a book about Leonardo, a fantastic book. And none of them bothered to bid on the Salvator Mundi.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Right. Nobody wants it.
Ben Lewis: Yeah. So in the audience is an executive from a New Orleans furniture manufacturing company called Warren Kuntz and his wife Minnie Kuntz ,and they take a shine to this picture. Or at least they can’t resist, the low price for which they can pick it up, which is 45 pounds. It’s amazing.
Katie Wilson-Milne: I just love it. Americans, I love it.
Ben Lewis: Brilliant, yeah and then check this out. They sail back to America on a cargo ship, presumably with this picture in the hold.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Yeah.
Ben Lewis: I mean, back to New Orleans, and this picture hangs you know, in their home for 50 years and when Warren Kuntz dies, Minnie has it. And then when Minnie dies, it passes to a relative of hers, a nephew I think, called Basil Hendry and then it passes to Basil Hendry’s son, Tookie Hendry. That’s when it gets auctioned, right, because Tookie Hendry wants to sell off the pictures he’s inherited, understandably.
Katie Wilson-Milne: But this is an amazing part of the story. Right, because Tookie, or whoever in the family, they’re not art experts. They need to figure out how to offload this stuff. So, who do they call?
Ben Lewis: Well, they’re smart enough to take photos of the works of arts and send the jpegs by email to Christie’s, and Christie’s sends somebody down. This was in 2005.
Katie Wilson-Milne: So Christie’s, which sells this painting for half a billion dollars in 2017, its first contact with this painting is in 2005?
Ben Lewis: So Christie’s send down the specialist to go ‘round the house, you know, and it’s like, “No. No. No. No. Don’t want that. Don’t want that. I’ll take that. I’ll take that. I’ll take that.” And it’s almost certain that the Salvator Mundi is hanging in the stairwell, you know, when this Christie’s specialist went ‘round. And she passed on it. So, all the stuff that’s left over, Tookie Hendry decides to consign to, you know, a fourth division auction house in New Orleans called the St. Charles Gallery and it’s put into the auction there with a low estimate of $1200 and a high estimate of $1800. And these auction houses, of course, mail out catalogues to, you know, to anyone who subscribes which would be, you know, lots of dealers would subscribe to auction house catalogues.
Steve Schindler: So, enter Robert Simon and Alex Parish.
Ben Lewis: Yeah. So. Alex Parish gets the auction house catalogue online. You know, and he’s built up this whole database of auction houses that might be selling works that are interesting. He told me, he used to spend 13 hours a day going click, click, click, click, click looking through all these online catalogues. He was working for a dealer called Richard Green, major old masters dealer. But also working on the side for himself. You know, and this picture, he spotted, you know, for himself. He saw it in the catalogue and any clever old masters dealer would spot something in that kind of picture, you know, but Salvator Mundi, follower of Leonardo da Vinci, for 1200 bucks. It’s got to be something, you know, it’s got to be worth that hasn’t it, even if it’s a later copy?
Katie Wilson-Milne: It’s worth saying that at this time, Parrish was not, you know, a mega dealer. He was not famous. He was a struggling art world laborer, right?
Ben Lewis: Alex Parish was a hard grafter. He had to work very hard and he hadn’t risen very high in the art world despite, you know, that he had a very good eye. He had a couple of successes before, and he just saw this picture and I don’t know why lots of other dealers didn’t see the picture. It’s probably because the auction house was just so obscure and the jpeg was really low quality and it was at the bottom of a page, and he spotted it.
Katie Wilson-Milne: And then what happens? How does Robert Simon get involved?
Ben Lewis: Well apparently Robert Simon saw the picture the same time in a hard copy catalogue, and anyway Alex Parish rang him up and said, you know, “should we go halves on this?” So, they each invested $587 bucks in a picture that later sold for $450 million.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Amazing.
Ben Lewis: You know, and neither of them went to New Orleans to look at the picture in person. Alex bid on it over the phone. It’s just incredible. And there wasn’t really anybody else bidding. So, he got it for below the low estimate.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Right. So, they win the auction and they buy the piece, and that sort of sets off the current trajectory.
Ben Lewis: And Alex Parish sends a courier down to pick it up. And the painting was in abysmal condition. You know, it’s heavily overpainted and pretty damaged. But you know, the hand was still looking pretty good, and that’s what Alex, Parish spotted, soon as they unwrapped it, “Oh my God, this hand is really good,” you know. “And I can see from the back, it’s old. I can see its period,” you know. “It’s not a sort of fake. It’s not a 19th century copy. This is really interesting.” And you know, that’s the point at which Alex Parish and Robert Simon took it to Dianne Modestini for restoration.
Steve Schindler: And who is she?
Ben Lewis: Dianne Modestini is one of America’s foremost restorers who’s spent 40 years, I think, restoring paintings for the Kress Collection, and she’s restored numerous works by followers of Leonardo like Cesare da Sesto and such like. And she was married to another very, very famous restorer, Mario Modestini. Robert Simon took it ‘round to show Dianne and Mario Modestini, and Mario Modestini looked at it and said, “it’s a really good picture but you know, I think it’s by a follower of Leonardo, probably painted after, you know, Leonardo died. But you know, it’s covered in stuff.” And Diane Modestini then started, you know, cleaning it.
Katie Wilson-Milne: And what does that mean?
Ben Lewis: Cleaning it is taking away all the overpaint, all the later restorations or as much as you can, I mean, pictures like this, you know, like the Salvator Mundi, they’ve been damaged and restored, damaged and restored, damaged and restored numerous times in their life. And the first thing you do if you’re going to restore a picture is try and take off all the overpainting. In actual fact, they didn’t take off all the overpainting. You don’t always know. It doesn’t always come off.
Katie Wilson-Milne: I was gonna say, how? That seems like such a precise delicate process to remove only certain layers of paint.
Ben Lewis: It’s not such a delicate process because the newer additions are a lot easier to take off. You know, you can use cotton buds and…
Katie Wilson-Milne: And it won’t take off the original layers of paint when they do that?
Ben Lewis: No. Because they are much harder and much dryer. Diane Modestini cleans it. It’s got a huge crack in the middle. It’s, you know, massively damaged. The top of Christ’s head has sort of been blown away and his face is heavily abraded, which means like really, really rubbed away. It’s almost like somebody had attacked Christ’s face with a sandpaper. I mean, it’s really hard. Really difficult. First thing is, they have to send it off to be, sort of put back together, because it’s got this cradle on the back. It’s buckled. It’s bent. It’s splitting into five pieces.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Because it’s on wood.
Ben Lewis: Yeah. It’s on wood. It’s on walnut, which links it to school of Leonardo, to Leonardo’s period and his studio.
Steve Schindler: Because this is the third sort of strand in the three elements of value that you outlined at the beginning. The first is attribution and authenticity. The second is provenance and whose collection it was in. The third is condition. So, far we’ve talked about the first two and it sounds like the third strand is pretty weak.
Ben Lewis: You know, there’s another group of art historians, exactly, who say actually it doesn’t matter whether this is by Leonardo or school of Leonardo. It’s so badly damaged, I cannot tell who it’s by. No one can tell who it’s by. There isn’t enough of Leonardo left, if he had anything to do with this.
Katie Wilson-Milne: So, we just can’t make any judgment about the authorship?
Ben Lewis: There are some who say that, you know, that one of the problems with Robert Simon’s promotion of the picture is not all the scientific documentation, not all the documentation of the restoration is been made publicly available. So, some art historians complain that they can’t really make a clear judgment about it, because they haven’t seen the hundreds of, you know, photographs of microscopic layers of paint and all the different stages of restoration. They haven’t seen the notes about exactly what was done when.
Katie Wilson-Milne: I think this, this is something Steve and I are particularly interested as attorneys and also thinking about how the law is often ill-equipped to deal with these gray zones in the art market. You know, what is real, what is not real? What does it mean to be authentic?And the fact that a conservator could repaint the painting and it could still be sold as an original is fascinating, and I think to people who don’t know anything about art conservation and restoration is a bit surprising that you know, when they go to the Met, you know, they go to the Frick or any number of museums that have world-class old masters collections, that they’re probably seeing recently painted, you know, versions of the original painting. Not that it’s a new canvas or a new piece of wood. But that it’s new paint. And I don’t think people know that when they are going in to these museums.
Steve Schindler: Yeah, and in fact, there’s a conservator who we’ve worked with who I walked through one of the TEFAF fairs with that featured old masters and older works. And he said, “I almost can’t do it. I almost can’t walk through these halls, because I look at these works, and I just see all the restoration and it’s troubling.”
Katie Wilson-Milne: And Dianne is one of the very best, you know, you don’t imply in your book and I don’t think anyone thinks that she was doing anything out of the ordinary from what a normal conservator would be doing. But because this is the last discovered Leonardo da Vinci, she gets placed under a microscope. But let’s talk a little bit more about what actually happened with this painting, because it’s quite extreme.
Ben Lewis: Well the question is whether, you know, Dianne was guilty of wishful thinking. Or whether she knew Leonardo’s work so well and whether certain parts of his picture were so well preserved that she was entitled to reconstitute some of the other bits. Just take them a little bit over the line, just be a little bit imaginative. You know, the hand is so amazing. That’s got to be Leonardo. That the orb is pretty good. People think that’s Leonardo. Well the eyes have been, basically, the eyes have been attacked with a flamethrower. There is nothing left. So, is it okay, if Diane has a go at the eyes until they sort of look right? I mean, she knows how Leonardo paints, in these really, really thin layers.
Katie Wilson-Milne: So, she strips the painting of all the overpaint and then she just starts from scratch, sort of building it back up? Is that the process?
Ben Lewis: Yeah. She works on different parts of the painting on and off over two year period. And there were later periods of restoration as well, so you could say that on and off the restoration went on for six years.
Steve Schindler: And that’s why the documentation that you say is missing is so important, because it would allow others to see exactly what she did, as opposed to just seeing the finished product which then is hard to judge.
Ben Lewis: Yeah. I mean, the gag that cynics make is that the reason this painting was in the contemporary art auction was because, you know, most of it was painted by the restorer. I mean…
Katie Wilson-Milne: Right, it was sold not in an old master’s auction in 2017, but in the contemporary auction.
Ben Lewis: You know, but to be fair to Dianne, you also have to ask yourself whether somebody as experienced and gifted as her doesn’t have the right to rescue a picture that that’s old and parts of which appear to be so beautiful.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Because the alternative is it disappears.
Ben Lewis: Yeah, so my book is quite critical, but I try to explain how everything can cut both ways.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Can I ask you to read, since better than me, you know, there’s a couple of good passages in your book where you deal with this restoration question.
Ben Lewis: Restoration is one of the most divisive and bitterly contested fields in art history. There is no clear set of agreed-upon rules in the global community. No guidelines or limits to how far a restorer can go to repair a work of art. Since the National Gallery’s cleaning controversy of the 1950s and 60s, art historians have fought over whether restorations that remove layers of varnish from old paintings and frescos also took off some of the final shading of the master. Since some Renaissance artists added pigment to the varnish to add finishing touches to their paintings, or they finalize their frescos al secco, with oil paint. Feelings on the issue run so high that in 2011, two art historians resigned from the committee supervising the restoration of Leonardo’s Saint Anne. In the recent restoration of The Last Supper, no attempt was made to repair the damage caused by time, the elements, wars, and above all, previous restorations. Instead, all the overpainting, the work of previous restorations, was removed and where there was nothing underneath, neutral water color tones were used. In the recent restoration of the Sistine Chapel, the accumulated grime and all the layers of varnish were removed, highly controversially, back down to the fresco surface. While Louvre curators resist removing the darkened varnish on the Mona Lisa even if it would make the painting more colorful.
Katie Wilson-Milne: So, there is a lot of variability here in terms of how these restorations happen, which makes it all the more controversial that there is no sort of wide industry standard.
Steve Schindler: Right. And from a legal perspective and sort of the way we think about it sometimes is when an auction house like Christie’s sells a work like this, the only thing that they are warrantying to the buying public is that this is a work by Leonardo. What they’re not warrantying is the condition, and they are not warrantying, you know, the restoration and because there is no agreement in this area, that becomes a very uncertain murky area in the law.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Yeah. The law is a little, always behind understanding the art world and technology, interestingly, even though they are sort of opposite in the spectrum.
Ben Lewis: You know, all the great Leonardo historians of Europe saw this picture between 1900 and 1958. You know, Bernard Berenson went to visit Cook with his wife Mary, and he sort of walked past the pictures. Jean-Paul Richter went to visit Cook and looked at the collection. Neither of them noticed the Salvator Mundi. No comment. And the great British art historian Ellis Waterhouse saw it in the auction in 1958. He just wrote one word next to it this the catalogue entry: wreck. You know, we do not know, or I cannot know anything about this picture.
Steve Schindler: So, let’s fast forward a little bit to 2011 and the journey to reattribute this work, if you will, to Leonardo and the role that the National Gallery played in that process. So, how did that unfold?
Ben Lewis: That’s the most controversial part of the story. The director of the National Gallery saw the painting, Robert Simon showed him the painting in autumn of 2007.
Katie Wilson-Milne: And before that, the public knew nothing about this. This was just Robert Simon and Dianne working on this behind the scenes, but it wasn’t out there and no one knew about it, right?
Ben Lewis: The public knew nothing about the picture til summer 2011. But you know, in this period, very few museum professionals had seen the picture. I think, as I understand it, Sir Nicholas Penny, the director of the National Gallery and the curator Luke Syson, who put on the Leonardo show to great acclaim. They were the first museum professionals to see the picture. And they saw it. They thought it was interesting. They wanted it in their exhibition. I mean, you know, God knows, that there aren’t many Leonardos go around. There’s only like the 14 definite ones. And it’s a classic case of demand exceeding supply. If something hot appears, you know, it’s a great way to make your Leonardo exhibition different from the ones that have gone before. But, you know, there’s a problem with just saying, “okay, we’re gonna pop it in our exhibition,” because A, it’s for sale, right, and no museum, by convention no museum exhibits a newly discovered work of art, or really any work of art that’s for sale. Can’t do that. And secondly the attribution is uncertain. You know, it’s only been just discovered and the gallery can’t make a decision it’s a Leonardo, but they can’t really exhibit it just as school of Leonardo, that wouldn’t really work and I don’t think Robert Simon would’ve wanted that. Anyway they decide to basically convene a panel of Leonardo experts in London to look at the picture. There were five of them there, there was Pietro Marani and Maria Teresa Fiorio from Milan, the Milanese Leonardo experts. There was David Alan Brown from the Nation Gallery of Art in Washington. There was Martin Kemp. You know, Britain’s greatest Leonardo expert from Oxford and there’s Carmen Bambach, America’s greatest Leonardo expert who’s at the Met Museum. You know, they looked at the picture and it all happened behind closed doors and afterwards, Luke Syson spoke to Sir Nicholas Penny and said, “well, they all kind of agree it’s a Leonardo, although there’s you know, some disagreement about whether his assistants painted bits of it.” Remember that gray area from earlier on? And then, you know, Sir Nicholas Penny actually reported that to Robert Simon, because Robert Simon told me.
Steve Schindler: So, that was the white smoke. I mean, that’s just, that moment is really what makes the entire sale possible.
Ben Lewis: Yeah, it makes everything possible. You know, the problem is, right, is that this decision process was totally informal. You know, you can’t gather a load of art historians and say, “right, here’s a piece of paper. Have a look at this picture. Is it a Leonardo or not?” Because one of them is gonna say, “where’s my check?” quite understandably, you know. Another one is gonna say, “oh, can I have ten years to think about that?” You know, a third is gonna say, “mmm, I’m not really sure.” The whole thing was sort of done informally, you know, the impression was gathered that these people thought it was a Leonardo. But if you put a load of Leonardo experts together in a big museum and have an informal discussion with them about a picture, you know, you are running the museum and, “here is a picture I’m really interested in.” They’re gonna be super polite. “Oh, yeah, that’s very interesting. That’s very Leonardo,” because you know, you don’t want to antagonize or create some kind of disagreement or stress with somebody from who you might be asking to borrow work from later on further down the line.
Steve Schindler: Right.
Ben Lewis: So, they come out of the meeting. Don’t say anything for three years, right. “Just keep it under wraps. We’re going to have as a big surprise in our exhibition.” So nothing is said for three years and then in, you know, this meeting was in May 2008 and then in summer 2011, out comes the press release from the National Gallery and Robert Simon. “These art historians think it’s a Leonardo, so, we are gonna put it in the exhibition.”
Katie Wilson-Milne: Right. And then the world sees this for the first time as a newly discovered Leonardo da Vinci work.
Ben Lewis: Yeah, and even then there is quite a lot of disagreement about whether it’s a Leonardo or not. It’s definitely not universally accepted by the art historians and critics who came to look at it it. It’s Robert Simon’s job to make the most of the pictures he has and you know, full credit to him, you know, he masterminded this completely brilliantly and you know, he was able to draw into his structure other art world professionals who also had a kind of interest in a new Leonardo. That’s how it worked. And certain people were left out of that National Gallery meeting who, you know, might have put a much bigger question mark on the picture.
Steve Schindler: Right. And didn’t some of the ones who saw it, who supposedly agreed that it was a Leonardo later tell you that that’s not what they said or thought?
Ben Lewis: Yeah. So I was able to contact the five art historians who were at that meeting and you know, some of them clearly thought it was a Leonardo. David Alan Brown wrote to me, you know, from Washington, “I definitely think this is a Leonardo.” Martin Kemp clearly thought it was an autograph Leonardo. But others didn’t. I mean, the Milanese art historians Marani and Fioro said, “well, you know, no one asked us to take part in an informal consensus or offer an official attribution. So, we didn’t really have a view one way or the other.” And Carmen Bambach also said, “you know, no one asked me. I wasn’t giving an official opinion and by the way, I didn’t think it’s Leonardo. I think it’s by one of his assistants. And he painted a few bits on it.”
Katie Wilson-Milne: So, it’s in this show which is a blockbuster show and then it’s taken down, comes back to New York and I assume at this point, Robert Simon and Alex Parish, they’re like, “time to sell,” right? Time to get this off our hands and but what happens, because it’s not as easy as you would think after having a show like that?
Ben Lewis: The picture proved difficult to sell, you know, that’s a problem. Even after the National Gallery exhibition, there was a sales period shortly before when an international carpet and antique dealer went around Europe including to German and Russian museum professionals and showed them full dossiers containing documentation of the restoration and the provenance and you know, these museums did not make an offer.
Steve Schindler: So, museums didn’t want to buy it? That—
Ben Lewis: Well it went to Dallas after the National Gallery exhibition. Max Anderson from you know, the Dallas Museum says, “I’ll have it. I can raise money to buy this.” And it went down to Dallas and sat in the basement for a while. Several months, in fact, but he never was able to raise the required funds to buy it, which Robert Simon and Alex Parish are not very pleased about the amount of time they lost while it was in Dallas. And you know, eventually, that would have been 2012, and eventually as we sort of know, I think we might be coming full circle, it sold in 2013 to this Russian oligarch. Yves Bouvier the freeport dealer sold the painting to Dmitry Rybolovlev. And what’s really amazing about this is that Yves Bouvier who, you know, is being sued by Dmitry Rybolovlev for hundreds of millions. You know, the one thing Yves Bouvier didn’t do was try to persuade Dmitry Rybolovlev to buy the Salvator Mundi.
Steve Schindler: Yeah. That was interesting. I mean, in your book, he seem to be really negative about it.
Katie Wilson-Milne: He was happy to take a $40 million profit on the sale.
Steve Schindler: Yeah, once the sale was gonna happen but—
Katie Wilson-Milne: But he wasn’t convinced, right?
Ben Lewis: And Bouvier’s account of the story dovetails with Rybolovlev. So, here, we have, you know, something that’s indisputably factual. Bouvier said, “don’t buy this as an investment. This picture has been on the market. I can’t really tell what condition it’s in. You know, it’s been heavily restored. If you are gonna buy it, just buy it for decorative purposes. That’s all it’s good for.” I mean, it’s quite damning. And Rybolovlev turned around to Bouvier and said, “no, well, I want it. I think it’s amazing. I think it’s got something, I want to see it,” you know. And when he saw it, he wanted to buy it.
Katie Wilson-Milne: And so Bouvier arranges the sale for him because that’s just the relationship they have. This is pre-their break up. And it’s through Sotheby’s right? Sotheby’s is brokering the sale for Robert Simon and Alex Parish and the other owner at that time?
Ben Lewis: Yeah. And out of that come the sort of incredible, this sort of myriad of lawsuits. I mean, I don’t think any work of art has been at the center of more lawsuits than the Salvator Mundi.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Why was it? Why was the sale controversial? First of all, I mean, it’s interesting that they couldn’t get anyone to buy it before Rybolovlev became interested and wanted to buy it and told Bouvier to execute on the sale. So, you know, they were somewhat desperate at that point. But you know, it’s a pretty standard transaction, a few middlemen, a big auction house helps broker the sale. So what, why was it controversial?
Ben Lewis: Well, Robert Simon and Alex Parish sold it to Yves Bouvier for $80 million and Yves Bouvier sold it the next day for $127.5 million, as we know. Right, so one set of lawsuits is Rybolovlev turning around and saying, “Bouvier was actually meant to be my agent. He made out, he was my agent,” you know.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Right. And didn’t tell me he was doing this.
Steve Schindler: So, breach of fiduciary duty. And then I think he also alleges that Sotheby’s aided in that.
Ben Lewis: Yeah, exactly. Sotheby’s are drawn in because Rybolovlev has also filed a $380 million lawsuit against Sotheby’s, and Sotheby’s knew that Bouvier was marking up the work and there’s a sort of very complicated set of arguments regarding valuations, you know, that Sotheby’s provided Rybolovlev with valuations which Rybolovlev’s legal team alleges, were close to the prices he paid and very far from the prices that Bouvier paid.
Katie Wilson-Milne: So, it looks like deception.
Ben Lewis: There’s another, another one for you, which is you know, Robert Simon and Alex Parish thought as well, “my God,” when they discovered the price, Sotheby’s are in on this, you know. So, they started making noises about how they were going to take Sotheby’s to court. Sotheby’s responded with a sort of complicated American deposition-type thing, which is amazing because you suddenly get the, you know, very rarely, you get the whole story of the sale in incredible detail because Sotheby’s are trying to defend themselves and also give away lots of secrets. In my opinion, a few more secrets than Robert Simon and Alex Parish might want to try and stop them from filing this lawsuit. Robert Simon and Alex Parish and Sotheby’s settled out of court, you know. That was a second NDA they signed. We don’t really know what was agreed. I think, probably, Simon and Parrish got several million dollars but you know, I don’t know. There’s an NDA. The RybolovlevBouvier cases are still going through the court. I mean, not just the courts in America but in Monaco—
Steve Schindler: All over the world. It’s a worldwide affair, yeah.
Katie Wilson-Milne: So, Rybolovlev ends up owning this work, right ,which he feels he overpaid for, but actually it ended up being a pretty good buy for him. Right? In the ultimate irony of this whole, this whole mess.
Ben Lewis: One of the beauties of this story is that what happened next is very unpredictable. So, Rybolovlev, you know, discovers he’d been over charged for the art. He can’t really look at his art collection with the same joy that he once could. He starts to sell them off. You know, through auction houses and usually at a very great loss. And one of the works he consigned eventually was the Salvator Mundi to Christie’s, except this time, far from making a loss, he bought it for a $127.5, he sold it for $450 million. And even if you, you know, take off the percentages that the third party guarantor would have got and Christie’s would have got, I think Rybolovlev would have cleared well over $200 million on that sale.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Yeah. Incredible. I mean, and just the fact that this painting went from a thousand dollars in a matter of years, a thousand dollars to half a billion dollars is mind blowing.
Ben Lewis: Yeah, what I say in my book is that no object, you know, no item and no substance of any known kind in any quantity has ever gone up in value so fast in the history of the known universe.
Steve Schindler: If you consider the hundreds of years of history behind this work or when it was in hiding or missing and all that and then within the period of a little more than a decade, it just skyrockets like that.
Katie Wilson-Milne: And nothing really changed except who people said had authored the work, right. The work didn’t change. It was restored, but it could have been restored before. The only thing that changed is this idea of its history and that is such, you know, it just isolates what is valuable in works of art which is the idea about them. Not necessarily the actual object but the idea about them is so much of the value. Okay, so it goes up at auction and we know what happens. It ends up selling for almost half a billion dollars. But it wasn’t clear right away who was willing to pay that price for a work like this. Especially one where there was still public disagreement about the attribution of the piece, as there still is which we’ll get to. Who is willing to pay that much and how did this end up happening?
Steve Schindler: Your book goes into some wonderful detail about the auction itself and the bidding and the 19 minutes and how particularly at the end, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia started bumping up in really crazy increments of—
Katie Wilson-Milne: Well, and not him but we think an intermediary. A lesser prince was the buyer.
Ben Lewis: Yeah. Most of the book is a whodunit, isn’t it? But there is a moment when it becomes a “who bought it.”
Steve Schindler: Right.
Ben Lewis: There’s about five bidders until about $220 million and it’s quite extraordinary. I’m not sure, who they all were but after $220 million, there’s only two bidders, right. They’re both anonymous bidders. They’re both bidding via Sotheby’s staffers on the phone. And one of the guys is going to be a fairly normal bidder. You know, he turns out to be the under-bidder. He’s like up it by a million or two million each time. But the other guy, you know, he really seems to be going for it. Like really, very unusually, I mean, I don’t know any precedence for this. At one point, he ups the price by $10 million just like that. There is another moment when he ups the price by $18 million and then in the last bid, he ups the price, the winning bid by $30 million dollars just like that.
Steve Schindler: It’s like a poker game. More like a poker game than an auction.
Katie Wilson-Milne: But a poorly played poker game.
Steve Schindler: Yeah. I mean, just like, but trying to almost intimidate the other bidder, right? That I’ve got so much money that you’re just never gonna, you’re never gonna win this.
Katie Wilson-Milne: And what do we know about who those parties were and why they wanted this work so bad?
Ben Lewis: In theory, you don’t know who bought this picture. Normally, you wouldn’t know, you know.
Katie Wilson-Milne: The auction houses are very secretive.
Ben Lewis: Yeah. I mean, it’s right to privacy of you know, the buyer and such like. Anyway, somehow it emerged from sources inside Saudi and I think possibly from American intelligence sources that the winning bidder was a Saudi prince, you know, and he was bidding on behalf of, i.e. using the money of the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Bin Salman.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Right.
Ben Lewis: That came out and then when you look at the way he’s bidding, and this is all sort of Sherlock Holmes-y kind of deduction. You know, you kind of think, why would the Saudi ruler be bidding for art? Why would he be bidding so aggressively for art? Let’s not forget that at the time, you know, the Saudis were blockading Qatar. It’s softened a bit but there was massive rivalry between the Saudis and the Qataris. And you know, the Saudis and the Qataris both have a lot of oil but at the time, it was one commodity the Qataris had a lot of that Saudis didn’t and that was art. They spent $250 million on a Cézanne and $250 million on a Gauguin and you know, it looks like here with the Saudis saying, “well, we’re gonna bag our trophy work.” It’s a bit like, you know, having a nuclear deterrent, having a Leonardo or a few trophy of artworks, you know, a collection that puts you, somehow it puts you at the top table. At least in your own mind. So, the Saudis probably thought, you know, they were bidding against the Qataris as well. Not just competing with them but bidding against them because to me that’s the only thing that can explain these huge price increases but I don’t think they were bidding against the Qataris. I think the under-bidder was a Chinese billionaire called Liu Yiqian—
Steve Schindler: Who bought the Modigliani. That expensive one that Christie’s auctioned.
Katie Wilson-Milne: But then there is another twist, right, I mean, it doesn’t look like the Saudis really embrace the purchase of this work.
Ben Lewis: I think there was a couple of weeks after the auction, the Saudis said that Prince Barda had been bidding for the work that was true. You know, the Saudi prince had been bidding but not on behalf of the ruler Saudi Arabia but on behalf of Abu Dhabi and it was going to go that the Abu Dhabi Louvre Museum.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Right. The new splashy project, beautiful museum that had just opened or was just about to open in Abu Dhabi.
Ben Lewis: Yeah. Yeah only the Louvre Abu Dhabi, then said “yes, we own this work of art.” You know, a tweet. “And we are gonna exhibit it. We are gonna unveil it in September 2018.” But two weeks before the unveiling, they canceled. They canceled the whole unveiling. It was just bizarre. I mean, I had a sort of vague idea that it was coming. Because I wrote them in August and said, “what an incredible events are you planning around the unveiling this masterpiece?” And they said, “we don’t know yet.” And I was like, oh, I mean, that’s a real giveaway. It now turns out that Abu Dhabi do not own this work of art. It’s still, you know, in the ownership of the ruler of Saudi Arabia and he may well be saving it up for one of his own museums which he’s currently building in Saudi Arabia.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Right so, I remember the press at this time and people were trying to figure out who bought it. There were some suggestion that it was either a gift to Abu Dhabi or it was a trade for some other asset with Abu Dhabi or they’d actually bought it from Saudi Arabia. You know, there were some actual change of title that had occurred. But actually, that never ended up happening.
Ben Lewis: There are, you know, endless rumors and there still are. Because we don’t really know where the picture is and we don’t know for certain who bought it. So, yeah, there was a rumor that the Saudi ruler had swapped it with the Emirati ruler, you know, for a yacht.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Right, right.
Steve Schindler: Yes, I heard that. But that turns out maybe not to be true.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Yeah.
Ben Lewis: I mean, clearly the Saudi ruler didn’t want to be outed, you know, revealed as the buyer of the Salvator Mundi. You know, because to spend such a lot of money on an image of Christ, not a particularly good look for you know the—
Katie Wilson-Milne: It’s extremely extravagant and distasteful for his country.
Ben Lewis: Yeah and the ruler of the kingdom that contains, you know, the holy site of Mecca. A ruler who is also conducting an anti-corruption campaign at the same time inside his state.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Is part of the walk back of the public launch of this work the continued worry and disagreement about its authenticity? I mean does that play into it still being out of public view, probably still in Switzerland in storage, I mean, is that part of it or…?
Ben Lewis: The truthful answer is we don’t know. I mean, it could be part of it. Perhaps the Saudi ruler is worried, he doesn’t have a real Leonardo da Vinci. But you know, there’s lots of other options. The Louvre Paris asked to borrow the Salvator Mundi, you know, for their blockbuster Leonardo exhibition. You know, they come around, there is another one this October, and they said officially, “we asked to borrow it but we haven’t heard back yet.” Well, they asked the Louvre Abu Dhabi if they could borrow it. But you know, they haven’t asked the Saudis. But since the Louvre Abu Dhabi is still the official owner of the Salvator Mundi, they can’t write to the Saudis and say, can we borrow the Salvator Mundi, because the Saudis haven’t actually said, “yeah, we’ve got it.” So, this is kind of amazing limbo where the picture has sort of vanished.
Steve Schindler: Do we know that the Louvre Paris affirmatively wants this work? I mean, have they made some internal decision that they would like to hang it as an original Leonardo?
Ben Lewis: Yeah, I mean, that takes us on the next $450 million question. I’m sorry, I can’t give you very clear answers to all this but you know, that would be the big question. If the Louvre Paris exhibited this picture, would they want to put a Leonardo—
Steve Schindler: Next to the Mona Lisa.
Ben Lewis: Yeah. Well that’s a whole other issue. Would they put a Leonardo da Vinci sticker on it or would they put a Leonardo plus workshop sticker on it? If they say, “we want to borrow this,” the owner is gonna say, “what sticker are you gonna put on it?” And if you come back to them and say, “actually our label is Leonardo plus workshop,” I don’t think he’s gonna want to lend it.
Katie Wilson-Milne: No, it’s a big market-moving decision.
Ben Lewis: But, you know, because I really know what’s going on. But the latest information I have is it seems that the curators inside the Louvre are divided about whether to exhibit this painting or how to exhibit it and there is, you know, an ongoing internal debate. Not only is the painting in no man’s land and no one knows—
Katie Wilson-Milne: Even if they could get it which they maybe can’t, right?
Steve Schindler: Well, that’s the next book.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Yeah. Thank you so much, Ben, for coming. We’ll put information about the fascinating book in our podcast notes and on our website and hopefully people will read it, because Steve and I really enjoyed it and we enjoyed talking to you today.
Steve Schindler: It was a pleasure.
Ben Lewis: Thank you for having me on. I’m very grateful. It was great.
Steve Schindler: And that’s it for today’s podcast. Please subscribe to us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts and send us feedback at email@example.com and if you like what you hear give us a five-star rating. We are also featuring the original music of Chris Thompson. And finally, we want to thank our fabulous producer Jackie Santos for making us sound so good.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Until next time, I’m Katie Wilson-Milne.
Steve Schindler: And I’m Steve Schindler bringing you the Art Law Podcast. A podcast exploring the places where art intersects with and interferes with the law.
Katie Wilson-Milne: The information provided in this podcast is not intended to be a source of legal advice. You should not consider the information provided to be an invitation for an attorney-client relationship, should not rely on the information as legal advice for any purpose, and should always seek the legal advice of competent counsel in the relevant jurisdiction.
Music by Chris Thompson. Produced by Jackie Santos.