Steve and Katie speak with old master art dealer and scholar Robert Simon about his discovery of the painting Salvator Mundi attributed to Leonardo da Vinci and sold by Christie’s in 2017 for almost half a billion dollars. They discuss Simon’s purchase of the painting from an obscure New Orleans auction house, the painting’s painstaking restoration and scholarly review, and what we know and don’t know about its history over the last 500 years.
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 premier litigation and art law boutique in New York City. Hi, Steve.
Steve Schindler: Hi, Katie.
Katie Wilson-Milne: So we’re revisiting an old topic today, Steve, with a new guest. We’re going to talk again about the Salvator Mundi, the famous painting by Leonardo da Vinci that sold at Christie’s in 2017 for almost half a billion dollars, which would make it the most expensive work of art that we know of sold of all time. And we had a really interesting discussion with Ben Lewis, who wrote a book called The Last Leonardo about the history of that painting and the history of that body of work by Leonardo and his studio. So we’re having another discussion today with someone who featured prominently in that discussion but wasn’t there to speak for himself, Robert Simon, the New York City art dealer who found this obscure auction catalogue from a tiny auction house in New Orleans, and he bought if for about $1,000 with a partner, so he didn’t even spend $1,000 on it. And that little piece of wood that he bought is the painting that sold at Christie’s for half a billion dollars. Now sadly, Robert was not the seller at Christie’s, so he did not net all the proceeds from that particular sale. But he is the one who discovered and largely worked on the restoration and research around that painting that lead to its acceptance, at least by many, as a genuine Leonardo and not by a student of or a copy.
Steve Schindler: I think one of the things that is interesting, to me at least, is this question of authenticity and how does one conclude, particularly at the kinds of price points that we’re talking about, that a work that is not signed by Leonardo da Vinci for which there is precious little writing, certainly no contemporaneous writing, how did it come to pass that this obscure work that ended up in a New Orleans home was deemed all of a sudden to be a work by the great master Leonardo da Vinci? And that’s the story that both Ben and Robert try to tell in slightly different ways.
Katie Wilson-Milne: And we definitely suggest for our listeners going back and listening to our podcast with Ben Lewis about the history of this painting the background on Leonardo’s work when he might’ve been painting these types of paintings, the different multiple paintings that exist like this. It’s a fascinating story and we do lay it out there in some detail. I guess this is a very brief reminder the idea of those who think that this painting sold at Christie’s in 2017 is an original work by Leonardo is that Leonardo was living in France at the end of his life in the 1500s and painted it for the royal family. Somehow, probably though marriage, the painting gets to England into the collection of Charles I, and somehow stays in England in a variety of royal households for hundreds and hundreds of years, until it’s sold in 1900 to a dealer or advisor of the Cook Collection, which is a very very famous art collection in the U.K. And it stays in that family, the Cook family, not recognized as a Leonardo, kept in the basement of a building in London during World War II, not even deemed important enough to evacuate. And then it’s sold for £45 in the 1950s to a couple from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who’s there on vacation.
Steve Schindler: At an auction where there were present some pretty famous and sophisticated collectors, because this was after all an auction of works from the Cook Collection, which as you mentioned, was a very well known, prestigious collection. And yet this couple from New Orleans were the only ones who saw fit to purchase it for a small sum of money.
Katie Wilson-Milne: And they bring it back on their cruise ship, I guess, back to Louisiana. And they pass away, and it passes to their heirs in succession. And then one of their heirs sells it in 2005 through this auction house for about $1,000 and I think is pretty upset now, discovering that it was in fact a Leonardo.
Steve Schindler: The other thing that we learned is that Christie’s was also called down to take a look at the works in the estate of this New Orleans family, and the idea was that Christie’s would bring back to New York to sell the better works, and in fact left behind the so-called Leonardo to be sold at a small auction house in New Orleans. So Christie’s passed on this work, too, effectively the first time around. So one of the interesting things also is listening to Robert go through the epiphany or the moment when he began to believe that this was a work by Leonardo.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Yeah, and I think we can tell from talking to him and also just from understanding what the records are like and talking to Ben that this is not a case where you can really dig through the history and get a definitive answer, right. There are no pictures from the 1600s from Charles I’s collection. There’s no exhibition catalogue that makes it absolutely clear which version of what is where. We have records of a painting with this name, not necessarily by Leonardo, and we know that there are many paintings with this name in the world and most of them are not by Leonardo. So we have this jumble of historical evidence that is not conclusive until we get to 1900, where we know that this very painting, the one that sold at Christie’s, gets into the Cook Collection, gets sold to this family in Louisiana, gets to Robert Simon, gets to auction at Christie’s again for half a billion dollars. So this realization that Robert has with some of his colleagues that the work is a Leonardo in their minds, or may be a Leonardo, is an impression, right? They don’t have better historical evidence than anyone else. They’re not finding some perfect document, they’re just looking at it. And we as laypeople, we just trust them, because we can’t make the determination if Leonardo painted anything or how much needs to be repainted, so this is a very interesting example of that, and hopefully our listeners will find it interesting.
Steve Schindler: I’m sure they will. We’re here today with Robert Simon, the co-author, along with Martin Kemp and Margaret Dalivalle, of a recently published book entitled Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi and the Collecting of Leonardo in the Stuart Courts. Robert Simon is the president of Robert Simon Fine Art, a New York City gallery focused on European painting. He received his doctorate from Columbia University, and his academic specialty is Florentine painting of the 16th century. He has published and lectured on both art historical matters and on broader concerns relating to the authenticity, valuation, conservation, and commercial trade of works of art. He has held leadership roles in the Appraisers Association of America, the Art and Antique Dealers League of America and the Private Art Dealers Association. And of course Mr. Simon, along with Alex Parish and Warren Adelson, has now achieved new art world celebrity as discoverer and purchaser for a modest sum of the Salvator Mundi from an obscure New Orleans auction house in 2005. Twelve years after he purchased it on November 15, 2017 at Christie’s New York Post-War and Contemporary evening sale, the hammer came down on lot 9B, a small painting entitled Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci. At just over $450 million it was and still is today the most expensive painting ever sold. The story has been the subject of books, articles, and now, we’ve just learned, a new Broadway musical. So we are fortunate today to have Robert Simon as our guest to talk about that fantastic journey. Robert Simon, welcome to the podcast.
Robert Simon: Thanks. It’s great to be a part of it. And just as you summarize it it’s kind of an amazing journey from scholarly obscurity to Broadway.
Steve Schindler: We can talk about who’s going to play you in the musical, but let’s start with the book, though. A scholarly book published by Oxford University Press, tell us why you decided to write the book?
Robert Simon: Well, I think there’s so much that’s been said and so much speculation about the discovery of the painting, the course of the research, the conservation of it, and it was important to have the material and the story of the discovery of the picture and it’s transformation from being an obscure anonymous painting into one that’s established as a work by Leonardo. It’s important to present this in a serious context because so much has appeared in popular media, in popular books, and on the internet. So much that’s actually inaccurate, or exaggerated, or opinionated, and just to have a starting point for the future discussion of the painting.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Robert, who are your co-authors, could you tell us?
Robert Simon: Well, Martin Kemp is certainly well established as probably the leading Leonardo scholar in the world. His career is one of a series of distinguished publications, exhibitions, articles, and the like devoted to the study of really all aspects of Leonardo’s work. Both the artistic, scientific, and probably most impressive of all, an analysis, really, of his — the way that his mind worked, and how all these different aspects of his genius were connected. So he’s one co-author, and then Margaret Dalivalle, who’s a scholar specializing in provenance and the history of collecting in England in the time of Charles I and subsequently. She is a brilliant scholar who delved into the manuscripts and also broadened the research from just this one painting to the collecting of works by Leonardo and paintings that were thought to be by Leonardo in that period in the 17th century.
Katie Wilson-Milne: And, Robert, you are the prime character in the beginning of this saga and have first-hand knowledge of all of the issues that have been debated and raised in the press and other writings. We discussed some of these issues with Ben Lewis, who is the author of a book called The Last Leonardo, and we did a podcast with him. And his book, while I think is very thorough, has raised some skepticism about the process of discovery and restoration and the history of this painting. And so we very much want to touch on your views on all of those things to get your perspective. And I know you’re familiar with Ben’s take on this.
Robert Simon: Sure. I am, although I have to say it’s been awhile since I read it. And basically, we have very different points of view just in terms of the nature of the books. I mean, Ben’s book is meant to be a successful book, meant to sell copies, and so if there is any kind of skepticism, it makes the story more interesting.
Steve Schindler: Right. Well, let’s actually start with your first contact with this work, because I found that a really intriguing part of the story. How did you first learn about the work? And tell us just a little bit about what took you from New York to the attention of the sale of this work at a New Orleans auction house?
Robert Simon: Well, I think part of what I do professionally, certainly before this and still actually do it now, is look for old master paintings that have lost their identity, that have been relegated into the pile of decorative or un-decorative works of art, since most old masters are not signed and one has to rely on impressions of style and quality, really, to determine authorship. And this is something that I share professionally and personally with Alex Parish, who’s been a colleague of mine. We are not officially business partners, we’re just very good friends who’ve bought paintings together over the years. And so the painting began with the two of us independently noting this picture in this auction in New Orleans. As obscure as it was, they produced printed catalogs, and I subscribed to those catalogs. And one day, the catalog appeared in my mailbox, and it was a painting that I noted and very soon after, maybe the next day or two, Alex called me he had seen the same painting online and said, “What do you think of it?” That conversation is really what began this whole saga.
Katie Wilson-Milne: What did you think of it, Robert? What did you see when you saw the catalog entry?
Robert Simon: Well, in this case, drawing on my academic training and my previous work on Leonardo, although I’ve not published anything extensively — one article really. But Leonardo for me and for many people — many sort of in the scholarly field, but just many people on the planet consider Leonardo to be a hero. And so at the age of 14, I was at Leonardo’s supposed birth house in Vinci. I think I had seen every painting by him that’s known or acknowledged over the course of my travels. So when I saw this picture I recognized it as being a version of a lost painting by him, one that was debated whether even it had been painted, whether it may have been in fact just a drawing that had been elaborated by students. So there were a few paintings of the composition that were known, but none that had really achieved any acceptance as a work by Leonardo.
And so it was intriguing, because anything having to do with Leonardo was of interest personally, but also the hope really, the prospect was that maybe this was by one of Leonardo’s students, and it would be not only of interest at a scholarly level, but also on a commercial level. Work by Leonardo’s followers, Beltraffio, Bellini, Giampietrino, these are works that are of considerable interest in the marketplace.
Katie Wilson-Milne: When you’re scrolling through these catalogs, is it in your mind that you’re looking for a Leonardo or something in the workshop of Leonardo? I mean how much are you on a search for this, rather than you’re perusing and you’re just seeing whatever’s out there?
Robert Simon: I’m just perusing. I mean this is the only painting I’ve ever had experience with in my career as an art dealer that had anything, really, close to being with Leonardo.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Maybe we could back up a little for our listeners and remind them what the history of this painting was that brought it to New Orleans, and how — one amazing thing about this story is why nobody else looked at this painting we know kind of surfaces in 1908, right? It ends up in this famous British collection, and then is not regarded as anything special in that time until the last couple of years. So how does it end up in New Orleans, and why are you the first person to give it this kind of attention and figure out that it is actually a painting of note?
Robert Simon: Well, I mean one aspect of course is that in the previous 50 years from the time we acquired it, the painting had been in a series of private homes in New Orleans and in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Basically, it had never been in that time exhibited in any museum or public venue that we know of. So it was acquired in 1900 by Frederick Cook and the Cook Collection, that is to say the collection formed by him, his son, and grandson, was one of the most notable and publicly visitable collections in England. It was based in Richmond, a suburb of London. We know that the painting was there from the first years of the 20th century until the Second World War. Many art historians visited it. Herbert Cook, who is Frederick Cook’s son, was an art historian, he was even a specialist in the work of Leonardo. And he, as well as everyone else who passed through the collection, pretty much overlooked this painting. And the reason for it, I think, is clear and that is that it was damaged and crudely repainted at some point, probably at many points in its history. But certainly by the time it arrived in the Cook Collection, and this is evidenced by the 1908 photograph you just referred to, the face had been really rather crudely overpainted. And so it was not really an attractive picture to say the least. Having said that, aspects of the painting had been pretty much unscathed, the hand — the blessing hand of Christ, particularly, which is really quite remarkable in its quality and its preservation. It really has a lot to do with the fact that it’s human nature when you see, whether it’s a person or a painting, to focus on the faults. And I think that’s the reason why the painting was overlooked. With the Second World War, most of the important paintings, the things that were deemed important were evacuated from London, sent to Wales, but this painting was put in the basement of the house in Richmond, which sustained bombing during the war, and it’s only a miracle that it survived. But after the conclusion of the war, it was relegated to warehouses, passed over by dealers that would come to take pictures from the collection to acquire. Passed over by the curators of the collection who brought in conservators, and it was thought not worthy of restoration. And finally, in 1958 the residue of the collection was sold at public auction by Sotheby’s in London, where this picture still with an attribution as a copy of a painting by Beltraffio, one of Leonardo’s students, was sold for £45. At the time that I acquired the painting I was able to establish the provenance of the Cook Collection because of inscriptions on the back of the painting, a number that was stenciled on the front of the painting, and then ultimately from discovering this early photograph from 1908 and comparing them with the picture. However, how it had gotten from London to New Orleans was a bit of a mystery, but that was something later we were able to establish, all credit to Ben Lewis. He was critical in finding the missing link in that vacationing antique collecting couple from New Orleans, was in London at the time, and bought the picture at the sale. After they passed, the painting was inherited by relatives who were in Baton Rouge, and at their death, the painting was put in an estate sale for auction. I had been able to determine who had consigned the picture to the auction in New Orleans, but that connection between Cook and New Orleans was not one that I was able to establish, but now we have that particular connection.
Katie Wilson-Milne: So since we’re talking about provenance, I think it’s fairly compelling and there seems to be some consensus that this is the painting that was in the Cook Collection. We can trace it back to around 1900. But what happened before that? I think that’s where the story gets a little harder to understand, because first of all, one thing to remind our listeners is that there are multiple Salvator Mundi paintings, right? So now we’re entering this period where it’s more difficult to figure out what is this exact painting versus another painting referred to? And then the further back in time we go, we don’t have photographic catalogues, we don’t have as much contemporaneously evidence. What contemporaneous evidence we do have is notebooks that reference the painting by name, but then there are lots of paintings with the name Salvator Mundi. So what happens before 1900?
Robert Simon: Well it’s true there’s no direct connection between Leonardo and this painting. And having said that, there’s pretty much no direct connection between Leonardo and pretty much any of his paintings that we recognize as being by him today. The only picture with a continuous provenance from the artist to 2020, is The Last Supper in Milan, because it’s been on the same wall since the time it was painted. So there are gaps with all paintings and that includes Mona Lisa and every painting that is really acknowledged as being by Leonardo. Some of them have provenances that go back a couple 100 years. But this is a very contentious field and one that we really are dealing with the likelihood of where a painting was at any particular time. And in this, we rely on descriptions and manuscripts, literary references, occasionally, we have copies of the paintings, and the evidence of writers on the artist. So it’s not really — the demand, in a way, that people seem to have that this painting should be connected seamlessly with the master is really unrealistic. So we’re dealing with descriptions, sometimes they can be conflicting, and almost always are inexact. The requirements that we’d like to have as art historians would be a description of the painting, the name of the artist, and the dimensions, and maybe a connection to a collection before or after, but that’s rarely present. And you’re quite right, in the 19th century, just going through auction catalogs there are dozens of paintings that are called Leonardo, called Salvator Mundi, or Head of Christ, or Blessing Christ, so many descriptions that are possible. And we really don’t have any evidence of the location of this painting before the late 1890s until in all likelihood it’s time in the collection of Charles I. But we have no concrete proof, there’s no smoking gun, so to speak.
Katie Wilson-Milne: And why, Robert, do we think that this particular Salvator Mundi was the one in Charles I’s collection? And maybe you can describe why that collection is so important? But I know this has also been a point of controversy, and I believe Ben brought up on our podcast that there’s another Salvator Mundi that’s made its way, it’s now in Russia, that does bear the marking, the branding that Charles I put on his works and his collection. And this Salvator Mundi does not have that marking and so what’s the basis to think that this was the work?
Robert Simon: Sure. First, as for the reason why this Salvator Mundi doesn’t have the brand on the back is that the back of the painting is not — has been shaved down, had been thinned and then glued to another panel and then what’s called cradling, which is a support system. So the back of the panel when acquired and then even after conservation, is a much thinner work than the panel was when it was painted. There is no brand on the back of the panel, but then again there’s no marking of any kind, really. That’s one of the things that had been lost and, really, one of the reasons why the painting had been overpainted, because the panel had clearly cracked and these repairs were done in order to stabilize the picture, essentially to save it. So that’s quite true, and the fact that there were two paintings, actually there were three paintings in Charles I’s collection that we consider to be by Leonardo. One is the St. John the Baptist, which is now in the Louvre. And then there were two paintings that were in the very precise inventory done after the execution of Charles I, as the Charles I collection is probably the greatest art collection ever assembled of paintings and of antique sculptures. After his execution, the paintings were all inventoried and they were distributed to what were called dividends, which were the groups of creditors who were owed money by the Crown. And there were two there, and I think it’s impossible really to say which was which except one of these wound up in Moscow and one of them wound up in New Orleans.
Katie Wilson-Milne: What’s incredible about this too is that even though there’s this long history and we think we can discover so many facts and documents, what it’s really coming down to today is the modern eye of experts, right? You, Martin Kemp, other scholars of Leonardo are looking at this painting and making a judgment call about whether it’s by him, or by his workshop, or by a disciple at his, or a later copy. And that actually is so much of what we’re relying on is just the contemporary eye rather than having any kind of real historical hard evidence. And you talk about that, and it’s so striking given the value of this painting and the importance we placed on it that it really just comes down to someone looking at it today and giving their opinion.
Robert Simon: Yes, it’s true and it’s true of course with — we’ve focused on Leonardo especially in this conversation, but it has to do with our understanding of art of the past generally. Leonardo never signed any of his paintings, this is something to point out, and that signatures on works of the period of Leonardo were pretty rare. Maybe it wasn’t until the late 18th and the 19th century that artists would sign paintings with any kind of regularity. So the art historian, the critic, just the general viewer has to rely on a number of factors to determine origin and possible authorship of a work of art going back to antiquity. I mean when you look at ancient works of art, very rarely I mean it’s absolutely exceptional when the work can be given to a particular artist, and it’s almost on literary descriptions that that happens. So one relies on what generally is called the eye, which is probably a little too general a statement, but basically the tools of what’s called connoisseurship, which is recognition of visual qualities combined with the technical issues in terms of how something was made, the materials that are used, and again documentarian records that we have, historical records all kind of put together. So it may seem to be completely vague when somebody says I think this is by one artist or another, but it’s actually rather rational, even at times it’s quite scientific. And I liken it a little bit to the process that happens when your best friend calls you on the telephone. That person doesn’t have to identify his or herself. You know the voice, because you recognize it, because all these factors that you can’t really define are there.
Steve Schindler: Let’s see if we can fast forward again to 2005 and your purchase of this work at the New Orleans auction. And I don’t want you to sell yourself short here, because we know that at the Sotheby’s Auction in 1958, there were some very distinguished historians and collectors at that auction, and they passed on this work. And the gentleman from New Orleans, Warren Kuntz bought it for £45. And then again in 2005 prior to the New Orleans auction, the descendant of Mr. Kuntz hired Christie’s and had Christie’s come down, and they took the top works back to sell in New York, and left the rest. And one of the works that was left was the Salvator Mundi. So by the time you and Alex Parish came along, some very significant art world people had looked at this work and not really noticed it. So now you purchased it and can we ask how much you paid for it? There seems to be some controversy about that.
Robert Simon: If I can remember $1150.
Steve Schindler: Right.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Best decision you ever made, Robert.
Robert Simon: It was a good investment.
Steve Schindler: So, you bring it back to New York, and then at some point you take it to Dianne Modestini’s for her to look at. And maybe just describe a little bit about the condition that it was in when you had it and what led you to Ms. Modestini’s doorstep.
Robert Simon: Well, first I should mention a word about Dianne Modestini and her husband Mario Modestini, who we’ve been friends, acquaintances for many many years. I first met Dianne in around 1980, I think it was, when I was a research fellow at the Metropolitan Museum and she was working in the painting conservation department. She was a conservator there. And over the years I had come to know her husband, Mario separately. He’s probably the most distinguished painting conservator for Renaissance paintings of his time and one who was pretty much responsible for the council to Samuel Kress and the creation of the Kress Collection, the greatest assemblage of Italian paintings in America, most of them in the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the rest in regional museums across the country. So, Mario was instrumental in that, but in his retirement, essentially, from that position he was a distinguished private conservator and a very wise and generous man. He was someone who was in many ways a mentor to me. I would occasionally go to his studio and he would show me what he was working on and also explain things; he’s really a great teacher in that regard. In 2005, Mario was 98 years old, and so he was pretty much house-bound and at the time I had acquired — I hadn’t seen him in in some time and a mutual friend said that they were going over for drinks and would I like to come visit. And I did and had a very nice conversation with him, and I mentioned then that I had recently purchased a very interesting picture. And I thought that it might be something that Mario would like to see, and I’d also like his opinion and Dianne’s opinion about its condition, since it was clearly problematic. And one of the reasons why Mario’s a terrific person to ask is that he was the person charged by Paul Mellon to vet, essentially, the Ginevra de’ Benci painting by Leonardo, which was acquired in the 1960s by the National Gallery of Art in Washington. And he has worked on many pictures by Leonardo and his students, so I thought his opinion would be invaluable, as would Dianne’s. Dianne had been for some time in private practice, but in recent years, she’s been a professor at New York University teaching painting conservation. So what was essentially a social call — that’s what started the whole process of its conservation.
Katie Wilson-Milne: And Dianne gets quite invested in a painting, you talk about that and she’s talked about that, and Ben writes about that in his book as well. And she takes a really lead role in resuscitating this painting and bring it back to life. And Steve and I have talked on this podcast a few times about the interesting issues about restoration versus authenticity. And what is the balance with repainting or reconstituting a work of art by a modern hand and how that’s done? And we’ve commented that when you go to the Met or the National Gallery, your average person walking around does not understand that the paintings they are looking at have largely been repainted. And so just understanding how that practice happens, especially with a work this old from the 1500s, and how did Dianne approach that? How did you and Dianne approach that process of restoration of this work given how heavily overpainted it was, how much needed to be done?
Robert Simon: Sure. I think one thing that is confusing to many people and a word that you used indistinguishably with inpainting, and that is repainting. The idea of repainting is taking something that’s been painted and then painting over it, and that’s not what was involved in this process at all. And that’s something that had been done to the painting over the years, over hundreds of years, which is why it looked so really awful upon its acquisition. Several people, some skilled, I should say some less skilled than others, who had made an attempt to reconstruct passages that were missing, and then the easiest way really to make that integrated with the surviving painting it is to cover up areas. So that’s why that painting had been so extensively repainted. But conservatives today adhere to really quite rigid ethical standards about leaving the original to the extent absolutely that one can and only limiting restoration to lost areas, and those areas to be done in a completely reversible manner and also to document those fully. One of the interesting aspects of this whole so-called controversy about the painting is that the conservation treatment has been extensively criticized and talked about by many people who really don’t know much about conservation treatment and even those that have some familiarity with it. Well, this project has been so properly and fully documented at every stage, and for those that are interested in this, Dianne has a website called salvatormundirevisited.com in which one can see high resolution photographs and analysis and the discussion of the treatment of the painting. But having said that, one of the things that goes on in a museum-like the Met or the National Gallery is a collaboration between the art historians, with the curators, and also outside scholars, and the painting conservation people. Who, when they work together, there’s tremendous advances that are made in the understanding of paintings and to resolve exactly how best to restore a painting and to make it presentable. In this case, having the ability to work with Dianne to discuss things gave me — gave the painting, I should say, its best chance to be presented properly. In terms of what you were suggesting, there are different philosophies about what kind of restoration should be done. When you look at an ancient sculpture, if there’s an arm missing that arm stays missing. We’re used to seeing our works of antiquity as fragments. In some circles in Europe, in Italy particularly, some restorers like to leave gaps that are in the painting unrestored so that one just sees the residue of the original paint. But in western museum world, plus most of Europe, certainly in England and the United States, the goal is as much as possible to make the work live and be effective as a work of art. So if there is a gap, if there is a lacuna, if there is a crack, if there is a loss of paint, to inpaint it, that is to say to restore it as much as possible, and to bridge that gap to the surviving paint surface. And that’s what was done here, it’s no different than what’s done in museums and done ethically and quite appropriately.
Steve Schindler: Right. We certainly weren’t suggesting that anything that you do was unethical. I think it’s just interesting that Dianne made some fairly significant decisions, and I gather made them with you about for example, there were two thumbs as I understand it, and she decided to mask the first in favor of the second. And these are decisions that you and she made together?
Robert Simon: I think it’s an interesting question. The two thumbs on the one hand really gave the most obvious indication that this was the original painting, because it showed the artist at work and changing his mind. And we discussed this extensively, even on a commercial level, it made the painting more obvious to anyone looking at it that it was the original. On the other hand, it turned the painting, turned the figure of Christ into somewhat of a freak, because people have one thumb. And so it seems a kind of a self-indulgent thing to show and so we discussed this extensively but also discussed it with outside people. One of the people we spoke with about this particular issue was Luke Syson, who was the curator at the National Gallery in London who was responsible ultimately for the Leonardo exhibition. He’s now the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in England. And so we wanted his opinion as well. This was a collaborative decision, and if the current owners would like to reveal the second thumb at some point, since restoration of this sort is by its nature reversible, that can happen.
Steve Schindler: And I think you described in your book the moment that you and Dianne were viewing the painting in her studio and I think both had the revelation that this was a work by Leonardo. Could you talk a little bit about that? When did you begin to believe that what you were looking at was not a work by a follower or a studio work but an autograph work of Leonardo da Vinci?
Robert Simon: Well, I should perhaps preface this by saying I’m not a dreamer or a fabulist, and so whereas many people who are out on the hunt for paintings for — or for a copy of the Declaration of Independence in a flea market, or whatever it might be, immediately go to the greatest possibility and start believing that. I’m by nature a doubter and quite critical, so as each stage in this process developed, I resisted. Resisted calling it Leonardo, considering it was by Leonardo. And I think that was a healthy thing to do. But there was this one point, which I mentioned in the book, when it was very clear that this pentimento, which was this changing thumb, which was evident really from the very beginning of the cleaning process. At one point I came to Dianne’s studio, we sat, we looked at it and then look at the evidence of the pentimenti, not just the one in the thumb which was visible, but also others that we were able to discern through imaging, infrared reflectography, particularly. And started to think of what explanations there could be for these changes and for the way the paintings look and also for its relationship to the many copies that I’ve been able to document in the time I was doing research on the painting. And it came as this wonderful rather frightening moment that this had to be the lost original. And yes, there was a kind of eureka moment although it kind of crept up very slowly. This is two years after the purchase of the painting. Either way, it was convincing myself of something that I had resisted for so long, so there was this moment of both release and relief. And also a bit of awe that somehow this is something that I was dealing with myself.
Katie Wilson-Milne: And you know then that’s sort of the beginning that leads you, I think, to the high point where the National Gallery in London gets involved and buys into this attribution or reattribution of this work as by Leonardo himself and inclusion of it in the exhibition that they had there in 2011. So can you talk about that and also the timeline is interesting, because you and your partner still own the painting, you are dealers so presumably it’s still going to be sold, but in the interim, it’s adopted by the National Gallery in London and goes up on display there. And then after it comes down you start the process of trying to sell it. And we want to go through that timeline and the role of the National Gallery in creating marketability for this work, which of course as we discussed no one before knew existed.
Robert Simon: At this point, the hurdle has been — I’ve gone over the hurdle that I’ve convinced myself that it’s by Leonardo and really what to do with it. How to present it to the world because it’s so —in art historical circles, it’s so unbelievable in a way. And I tried to think of who as an art historian I thought was the finest connoisseur of Italian painting and probably most independent and less inclined to have any kind of preconceptions. And one person that occurred to me was Nicholas Penny, he’s is now Sir Nicholas Penny, but at the time, he was the curator of sculpture at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. And I had met him on a couple of occasions and had certainly read many of his publications and attended lectures by him, and he always impressed me as a fair, sober, and a super intelligent scholar and as a great connoisseur of Italian painting. So I wrote to him, I said to him, “I have a very interesting Italian painting I’d like to show you. I think it’s quite important.” But I didn’t mention the name Leonardo, because I thought that might scare him. And he said he’d be in New York in a few weeks, and indeed he did come it was December of 2017. And I took the painting from the studio, brought it to my little gallery at the time, and he came in. And basically after a bit of study and pretty much no conversation between the two of us, he said that I had a very interesting problem, but he’d certainly recognized it as being by Leonardo. And I asked him how did he think this should be presented to other scholars and to the world, and what is the best way to proceed? He told me that he’d call me the next day, and indeed he did. He called me and said, “I think, first of all, you should share the news of this with Metropolitan Museum. They are your local museum and with great scholars and people involved.” He at this time had been appointed the director of the National Gallery in London. And a good way to present it would be to take it to the National Gallery’s The Virgin of the Rocks off-exhibition for a day, compare the two pictures, and then invite principal Leonardo scholars to see it on this neutral ground and for them to study the painting independently. And indeed that’s what happened, the painting in January 2018 was taken to the Metropolitan Museum for safekeeping and also to allow their conservation department to use their advanced equipment in terms of infrared reflectography and the like and to study the picture. And it stayed there until May 2018, at which point I took the picture to London, and the picture was placed with The Virgin of the Rocks, and this group of scholars were invited to look at the painting independently and together. And that’s really how the scholarly consensus appeared.
Steve Schindler: Can you just talk a little bit about the process of that consensus? I am intrigued also that Sir Penny was able to make up his mind in such a short period of time. As a non-art historian, it would seem to me that that’s a monumental decision, that somehow it might take more study. And I don’t know whether that was a surprising conclusion that he reached so quickly. But you can talk about that, but also we are interested in the process of the invitation of scholars to the National Gallery. There has been some criticism I guess of the informality of it in the way that that was done. This could be a chance for you to address that.
Robert Simon: Sure. Certainly understanding things, as I just referred to recognizing your friend’s voice on the phone, recognizing an artist’s hand in a painting can be with a great connoisseur pretty much an immediate aperçu, an immediate understanding. And I think that’s what occurred with Nicholas Penny. However, that immediate reaction gets backed up by consideration of all sorts of ancillary issues having to do with the scholarship and the condition and provenance issues. So there may be an immediate response, but it is considered and reflected upon. Now the whole idea of this was for it to be an informal presentation of the painting to scholars where they would not have to commit themselves. Where they could indeed look at the picture, give their personal opinions. And then at the time, I was there, I was able to give them all the copies of all the conservation reports, treatments, photographs, infrared in-treatment material for them then to study and to consider. So this was not an event where people were either put on the spot or in any way asked to form their opinions immediately. As I mentioned, I was present at this meeting both as the caretaker of the painting but also to provide any information to questions that might arise, which many did. And the opinions of the scholars were then conveyed to the curator, Luke Syson, some weeks afterwards. So the idea that that was somehow improper or irregular is completely misplaced, as was the idea which not all the scholars agreed on the attribution. Which is, I can say, false. Because when the time came for the painting to be announced before the exhibition opened, I wrote to each one of them and asked whether they would commit to using their name in supporting the attribution, and each one of them said yes. So this is, again, is a kind of trying to make controversy out of a situation where there really wasn’t any.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Because this is another criticism, or just observation that I think sounds critical to me, that’s been raised is is it unusual for a painting that is for sale to be displayed in a museum exhibition like this? How does that impact your role as the dealer and the sale of the painting after? Now, I think you would assume that it would dramatically assist the sale of the painting, raise its profile, right? It’s every collector’s and dealer’s dream to have something they’re going to sell be highlighted in a top museum like this. But somewhat ironically, I think you had some difficulty selling it, and I’m wondering if you could talk about that and the interaction of the museum show on the subsequent sale in your sale efforts?
Robert Simon: Sure. Well, I think one of the things that, again that’s out there in the popular discussion of this, is that the painting was for sale at the time. And I can assure you that the painting was not for sale, it wasn’t for sale leading up to the exhibition and it really wasn’t even for sale after the exhibition. We never actually marketed the picture. There were some inquiries from museums during this time, but for a painting to be exhibited at so distinguished a museum as the National Gallery, which besides being phenomenally prominent, is a government institution, there was the tacit understanding that the picture would not be marketed and would not be for sale. And the approaches after the exhibition, I should say — again, the painting, as it’s fairly well known, was being sought after for acquisition by the Dallas Museum of Art. And that was not something that was even instigated by the owners, it was something that the then-director wished to pursue. And it’s actually — it’s eventual sale through private sale afterwards was also something that was not instigated by us. It was something that came to us. Yes, the painting obviously was sold but we were passive participants in this whole process. I, particularly, was one — handing the scholarly aspect and dealing with museums and the like, I wanted nothing to do with the sale process and stayed very much away from it even in its ultimate sale. But the entire desire for myself and my colleagues who owned the picture was for the painting to go to a public collection. So the painting was known to certain museums, certain curators, and certainly during the exhibition it was known and talked about. And as presented to us by the eventual purchaser, it was to go on public exhibition. It turned out not to be the case, but that was one of the reasons we accepted the offer that was made for it.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Were you surprised, Robert, that it didn’t get sold to an institution and that museums passed up the opportunity to purchase this work? And maybe that it took so long to sell? I understand you weren’t actively marketing it in the way you might other paintings. But what are your thoughts on how you ultimately sold it?
Robert Simon: Yeah, absolutely. I was surprised. I understood that public institutions do not have the funds, really, to make major acquisitions of this sort. For example, being a New Yorker, I would have loved the painting to have gone to Metropolitan Museum. I know their acquisitions came under a fair amount of criticism when they acquired the Duccio Madonna [and Child] for $40-plus million. But there are a lot of very impressive donors in New York, and I would love the picture to have stayed here. And the owners of the picture, all being Americans, would have been quite open to a substantial donation of interest in the picture for it to stay in the United States. But the one real effort that was being made from Dallas Museum did not lead to a satisfactory conclusion after maybe nine months of their attempt to acquire the painting and fundraise for the picture. So yeah, it was very disappointing and that’s something that no one could have anticipated.
Steve Schindler: How did the sale to Yves Bouvier come about then? That happened in 2013, and then he immediately turned around and sold it to Dmitry Rybolovlev for $127.5 million. And of course, they’ve been locked in a bitter controversy for a number of years over Mr. Rybolovlev’s accusation that Yves Bouvier was acting as his agent and was essentially marking up and taking secret profits from the works that he was selling. So you ended up selling into this soon-to-be very large dispute. How did that all happen and how did it make you feel?
Robert Simon: What you’ve just discussed and the identities of these people of course came to my knowledge only maybe two years later. So basically my knowledge of it and the knowledge of my partners is that we were approached by Sotheby’s and said that they had a private individual collector who was interested in the painting and who planned to put it on public view in Paris. And Sotheby’s acted as our representatives, we had no knowledge of the immediate or ultimate purchaser of the painting. And it was only with the revelation two years later of the issues between Bouvier and Rybolovlev. The news goes on it seems daily with their legal dispute. Actually, in the time after the purchase even leading up to 2015 when the painting was being requested for a large Leonardo exhibition that took place in Milan. The curator of the exhibition was Pietro Marani; he was one of the people from that 2008 meeting in the National Gallery, was requesting the painting, and I would then pass on the request to Sotheby’s asking them to pass it on to the purchaser and basically was told that they weren’t interested in exhibiting it.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Are you disappointed in how — I want to ask about the price, because obviously we know that the painting sold three years ago for almost half a billion dollars, and that is not what you were paid. I don’t know what you were paid, but we know that it wasn’t that. So I don’t know if you can comment on the trajectory of that pricing in just a few short years and if you feel like the sale through you and onward was problematic in anyway because of that. And also how do you feel about where the painting is now, which by the way we don’t know where it is? But how do you feel about the disappearance of the painting into oligarch private storage space land. I’m assuming from what you’ve told us that is not what you were hoping or anticipating.
Robert Simon: No. In that regard, yes of course the whole process was shocking, and it’s really quite amazing the changes in the price, first in the price we were paid and then evidently the price that the painting acquired 24 hours after we had sold it when it was acquired by Mr. Yves Bouvier and then at the sale itself. But the basic situation in terms of our sale of it is that it was something that we accepted at the time and we have to live with that, and that’s fine. I was at the sale at Christie’s when it sold for $450 million, and if anything, I just felt that the opinion of the painting already had been so much discussed, and it justified so much of my opinion and the opinions of other scholars and the like. It’s “disappearance,” I mean, it had disappeared after we had sold it in 2013 and without really any understanding of who had owned it, and we have a really good indication that it’s now owned by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. And my understanding is that they are building a museum, trying to have a tourist industry, and that eventually at some point it will go on exhibit there. It’s a lot less convenient for me than Metropolitan Museum where I wanted it to be, so it’s a little disappointing in that regard. But I’d like to think that somehow a picture of this universal appeal may have great benefit being exhibited when it eventually does go on exhibition. So the painting itself, yes it’s disappointing that people cannot see it now, and have not been able to see it. It seems as if it was almost agreed to to be exhibited at the Louvre, the Leonardo exhibition last fall, that didn’t come to be for reasons that I gather were largely political. But a painting of this sort will not disappear ultimately in some point will be viewable again and enjoyable by many I certainly hope.
Steve Schindler: And then we’ll have the musical.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Yeah. Right. That’s a good hope to end on, and we’ll always have the musical.
Robert Simon: Yeah. We have the musical. No, I mean, I had heard about this through connections with the producer, and of course there are a lot of things with a painting that, as it’s become a popular icon, there’s some things that I find amusing, some things I find offensive. But as time goes on, I’m just finding it a little more amusing more than anything else. It seems that the painting has such a phenomenal effect with people, generally speaking, and it also seems that everyone wants to have a piece of it, one way or the other. Whether it’s selling trinkets with the image on it, or making a musical, or writing a popular book, or really just the number of memes of that painting is really quite extraordinary. It sort of rivals that of Mona Lisa at this point. But I mean, the painting is a painting. I find it a moving and powerful spiritual work of art, and I think for those who have the sensitivity to appreciate it, it will remain so and become a great part of our great global cultural heritage. And for those that don’t see it quite that way, maybe they can enjoy the musical as a substitute.
Steve Schindler: And even before the musical comes out, you can still get the book Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi and the Collecting of Leonardo in the Stuart Courts, published by Oxford University Press. It’s a great read. Thank you for coming, Robert.
Robert Simon: It was great. Thanks so much.
Steve Schindler: And that’s it for today’s podcast. Please subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts, and send us feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you like what you hear, give us a 5-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, the 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 council in the relevant jurisdiction.
Music by Chris Thompson. Produced by Jackie Santos.