The Lost Leonardo
Saturday, 09.11.2021, 03:36 AM
What’s the provenance of a piece of art? According to Oxford, it is a record of ownership of a work of art or an antique, used as a guide to authenticity or quality.
It’s also the plot of a new drama/documentary, directed by Andreas Koefoed, The Lost Leonardo. A painting, uncovered by a ‘sleeper hunter’ in an auction house in New Orleans in 2005, is purchased for $1175. A ‘sleeper hunter’ is someone who searches for misattributed pieces of art, such as a statue or a painting. The sleeper hunter, based on their gut feeling and some expertise, believes that the piece of art they have uncovered is worth far more than its price tag.
In 2015, a sleeper hunter purchased a painting from a small NJ auction house for less than $800. His gut feeling was that it was a “lost Rembrandt”. It eventually sold for $5,000,000. Its provenance went from “possibly by a young Rembrandt” or “by one of his students”, to confirmation that it was, in fact, a Rembrandt. Naturally, as the “experts” increased their expert determinations, the painting’s worth increased exponentially.
By the close of The Lost Leonardo, 25 such experts, from Gallerydirectors to art critics, to notaries on da Vinci from across the globe, and even the CIA, weighed in on the authenticity of the work, entitled the Salvatore Mundi. Eventually, the Salvator Mundi became the most expensive painting ever sold at public auction.
The Salvator Mundi is first proposed to be done ‘in the style of Leonardo’. Then, possibly, ‘by a student of Leonardo’, until it’s finally proclaimed by one of the art historians to ‘be a Leonardo!!’ Of course, the value increased exponentially with each expert’s testimony.
And still, questions remain. Is it, in fact, a Leonardo? Is it all a sham? In the artworld, it is exceedingly accurate to state that “opinions matter more than facts”. Art is always subjective. No, I do not have a degree in art. But, like most people, I know what I like, and what I do not. Would I have spent the outrageous fortunes used to acquire any of these works, just for the talking rights of ownership? Not for an instant.
What makes the whole affair even sadder, in my opinion, is that many pieces of art with true provenance are in the hands of collectors, hidden in private corridors, never to be seen by the public.
In the case of the Salvator Mundi, at one point, the very well restored painting falls into the hands of a Russian billionaire oligarch. Eventually the oligarch realizes he’s been swindled. And here’s a point that a certain someone should keep in mind – never, ever, cross a Russian oligarch. They’ll make your life a living hell.
Oddly, the filmmakers never explore one obvious theory about why or how this Salvator Mundi appeared in New Orleans. That of the great Nazi art theft. More than 650,000 works of art were looted from Europe by the Nazis. Many of these have never been recovered. Why did the filmmakers never even allude to this possibility of how it got to America?
A possible first provenance of this Salvator Mundi seems to have been recorded and archived in the 1500’s. It may have been brought to Naples from Rome by Charles V. We do know that a copy, possibly this copy, was stolen from Naples in 2020. It had been in the Museum of San Domenico Maggiore. The Naples copy is attributed to one of Da Vinci’s students. Eventually this stolen copy was recovered. And round and round we go.
So where’s the ‘original’ Salvator Mundi now? Well, for all we know, it’s sitting on a shelf somewhere next to the Lost Ark of the Covenant. The Lost Leonardo goes further in exposing the avarice of the artworld than attempting to solve what may, in fact, be a mystery unsolvable.
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