The Last Leonardo Art Porn For Millennials – Edward Lucie-Smith




Ben Lewis’s book The Last Leonardo, subtitled ‘A Masterpiece, A Mystery and the Dirty World of Art’, has now appeared in paperback after its publication in hardcover last year. It makes a riveting read, no less so because the painting itself, an image of Christ as the Salvator Mundi, has yet again vanished. Some people say it is currently locked away in duty-free storage in Switzerland. Others, a tad less plausibly, assert that it is on display in the private yacht of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.

The Salvator Mundi painting now somewhat uneasily attributed to Leonardo is inconspicuously poor condition – ELS

The last time it was seen in public was at Christie’s saleroom in New York on 15 November 2017 where it fetched $400 million, plus the auction house commission of another $50 million charged to the buyer. Before that, it had been on view for three months at the National Gallery in London, in a show entitled ‘Leonardo: A Painter at the Court of Milan’, which opened on 11 November 2011. This drew 323,897 visitors. I was one of those who saw it there.

Lewis’s account is very comprehensive, but not, as he admits, quite complete. The painting emerged into view as part of the once famous Cook Collection in London, formed in the Victorian era, catalogued in three volumes in 1913, and sold off from 1944 onwards. The Salvator Mundi, not catalogued as a work by Leonardo, formed part of a final sale held at Sotheby’s in London in June 1958. After then, it vanished again. Lewis has now tracked it down to its reappearance in a small auction house in New Orleans.

Before its appearance in the Cook Collection, its previous history is a mystery. At one point it was thought to have formed part of the famous collection of Old Masters formed by Charles I of England, but this has been torpedoed by the fact that a rather different Leonardesque Salvator Mundi, with Charles’ collection brand on the back of the panel, now exists in a museum in Russia. There are in quite a large number of versions of this subject, by Leonardo’s close followers and by artists who came later, some of which are in well-known public collections. The situation is confused by the fact that Leonardo was notoriously reluctant to get on with the task of bringing artworks to completion. He preferred to be a man of ideas, as is demonstrated by his drawings, which often foreshadow ideas which were only fully realised in the centuries after his death. He was an itinerant savant, working in Florence, then in Milan – first for the Sforza court in Milan, then for the French occupiers of the same city – and finally moving to France under French patronage. He designed masques for the Sforza and even spent a brief period designing war machines for the condottiere Cesare Borgia, the illegitimate son of the Spanish-Aragonese pope Alexander VI.

The Salvator Mundi painting now somewhat uneasily attributed to Leonardo is inconspicuously poor condition. The panel on which the image is painted is in fragments, and it has undergone a series of drastic restorations, some old and some new. During its recent history, when it was for a long period in the hands of the much-respected restorer Dianne Modestini, its appearance subtly shifted. The painting that appeared at auction in New York was – just a little – different from the one that was put on show at the National Gallery in London. There are only two Leonardo drawings, both drapery studies, that seem to be linked to it. When one looks at it now the parts of the painting that seem to be most firmly connected to what one knows about Leonardo from his drawings are the Saviour’s arms and his hands. The face, beardless, except for maybe a little scruff, fade away from one as one looks at it. And yet.. And yet.. the image wills you to believe in it. Believing that this is indeed the work of one of the great geniuses of Western art is an act of faith.

That faith is not much supported by its extraordinary recent financial history, spelled out in detail by Ben Lewis in his book. On its reappearance in New Orleans, the painting was purchased by a pair of astute dealers from a sale at a minor local auction house. The winning bid was $1,175. Later it passed into the hands of a Russian oligarch called Dmitry Rybolovlev, who, having made a fortune in potash and having fallen out of favour with the Putin regime, was living in comfortable exile in Monaco. Rybolovlev had built up a collection of paintings by major Post-Impressionist and Modern names but was royally screwed on prices by an agent whom he trusted. When he decided to sell up, he made significant losses. That is, except for the Salvator Mundi which, placed by Christie’s as a solo lot before a sale of Modern works, enabled him to recoup everything he had previously lost. A saviour in more ways than one.

Ben Lewis, The Last Leonardo, William Collins £9.99

Read More About The Last Leonardo

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Ben Lewis author of The Last Leonardo is a documentary film-maker, author and art critic, whose films have been commissioned by the BBC, Arte, and a long list of broadcasters from Europe, North America and Australia. He writes a monthly column on art for Prospect magazine and writes weekly as an art critic for the Evening Standard. His articles have also been widely published in the Times, Sunday Times, Observer, Financial Times and Sunday Telegraph in the UK and Monopol magazine in Germany.


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