The Last Leonardo: The Secret Lives of the World's Most Expensive Painting

The Last Leonardo: The Secret Lives of the World's Most Expensive Painting

by Ben Lewis


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An epic quest exposes hidden truths about Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi, the recently discovered masterpiece that sold for $450 million—and might not be the real thing.

For two centuries, art dealers and historians searched in vain for the Holy Grail of art history: a portrait of Christ as the Salvator Mundi ("Savior of the World") by Leonardo da Vinci. At last, in 2005 a compelling candidate was discovered by a small-time Old Masters dealer at a second-rate auction house in New Orleans. After a six-year restoration, an exhibition at the National Gallery in London, and the help of canny Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier, the painting was sold to the news-making Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev. After the very-public fallout between Rybolovlev and Bouvier, the painting went on to make headlines again in 2017 as the most expensive painting ever sold when a proxy of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman won the masterwork at a Christie's auction for $450 million.

But controversy still surrounds the artwork: Did the auction house—and the art dealers, curators, and art historians behind this find--actually have the right painting, or is there another? Did Leonardo even paint a Salvator Mundi? Some scholars argue he was only occasionally painting at the time the work is dated. Was the painting restored to such an extent that it became a Leonardo, though it was in fact the work of his apprentices? In short: Is it the genuine artifact, the result of a frenzied marketing genius—or perhaps a little of both?

In a thriller-like pursuit of the truth, Ben Lewis examines the five-hundred-year Cinderella-story of this painting and, astonishingly, turns up the smoking guns, including the burnt initials of ownership by an English king on a different Salvator Mundi and the identity of the American family who owned the painting for some of its missing decades. Through this journey, we come to see how the global art market evolved to what it is today, and we are left to ask ourselves what art means to humanity, both past and present.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781984819253
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/25/2019
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 74,094
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Ben Lewis is an art critic, author, documentary filmmaker, and visiting fellow of the Warburg Institute in London. He has written widely about art and culture for the international press including The Times, The Telegraph, London Evening Standard, The Observer, Prospect Magazine, Libération, and Die Welt. His award-winning documentary films include The Beatles, Hippies and Hells Angels: Inside the Crazy World of Apple; Google and the World Brain; Poor Us: An Animated History of Poverty; The Great Contemporary Art Bubble; Art Safari; and Brancusi: Monk of Modernism. Ben has an MA in history and art history from Trinity College/Cambridge University, and he studied at the Freie Universität in Berlin.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Flight to London

Robert Simon had plenty of legroom on his flight to London in May 2008. He was flying first class, an unusual luxury for this comfortably successful but unostentatious Old Masters dealer, president of the invitation-­only Private Art Dealers Association. During moments of transatlantic turbulence he cast a glance down the aisle at one of the first-­class cabins’ closets, where he had been given permission to stow a slim but oversize case.

It contained a Renaissance painting, 26 inches high and 18 inches across, of a “half-­figure,” to use the old­fashioned art historical term, of Christ. The portrait composition showed the face, chest, and arms, with one hand raised in blessing and the other holding a transparent orb. One reason Simon was worried about the painting was that he had not been able to afford the insurance premium he had been quoted for it. He had bought it three years earlier for around $10,000—or so he had told the media—but it was now thought to be worth between $100 million and $200 million.

Far from being the life of luxury many people imagine, dealing in art can be a precarious existence even at the highest levels, because selling expensive paintings is, well, very expensive. Top-­end galleries have vertiginous overheads. Walls have to be repainted for each show, catalogues printed, wealthy collectors wined and dined. Simon had spent tens of thousands of dollars restoring the boxed painting, and had not yet seen a penny in return.

Solidly built, medium height, Jewish, fifty-­something, soft-­spoken, polite, Robert Simon is the kind of person who believes that modesty and understatement are rewarded by the higher forces that direct our lives. He projects a pleasant but slightly brittle calm. “Loose lips sink ships,” he likes to say, repurposing a slogan emblazoned on American propaganda posters in the Second World War to the business of art.

Simon leaned backward in his seat. He was overcome by that mood men fall into when they know the die has been cast, the pieces arranged on the board, and there is nothing more they can do except perform a sequence of now predetermined actions. There could be no more organizing, influencing, persuading. It was all done, to the best of his abilities. The confinement of the long pod of the aircraft cabin and the sensation of forward motion provided by the thrust of four jet engines combined into a physical metaphor for this moment in his life.

Alongside the submarine, the parachute, and the machine gun, the airplane was the most famous invention anticipated by the artist who had consumed Simon’s life for the previous five years. Leonardo da Vinci was not the first human who had designed flying machines, and it is likely he never built one himself, but he had studied the subject for longer, written more, and drawn designs of greater sophistication than anyone before him. His ideas for human flight were based on years of watching and analyzing the airborne movements of birds, bats, and flying insects, and recording his observations in notes and drawings. His resulting insights exemplified his uncanny ability to deduce the science behind natural phenomena. As Simon felt air currents lifting up the plane, he recalled how Leonardo was the first to recognize that the movement of air was as important to a bird’s flight as the movement of its wings.

On April 15, 1505, Leonardo completed the draft treatise On the Flight of Birds, also known as the Turin Codex. It was only about forty pages long, filled with unusually neat lines of text, written in black ink in his trademark mirrored handwriting, right to left, interspersed with geometric diagrams, and the margins sometimes decorated with tiny, beautiful sketches of birds in flight. Leonardo’s early ornithopters, or “birdcraft,” had wings shaped like a bat’s because, as he wrote, a bat’s wing has “a permeable membrane” and could be more lightly constructed than “the wings of feathered birds,” which had to be “more powerful in bone and tendon.” Leonardo positioned his pilot horizontally in a frame underneath the two wings, where he was to use his arms and legs to push a system of rods and levers to make them flap. Historians say Leonardo soon came to realize that the human body was too heavy, and its muscles too weak, to provide enough power for flight, so his later designs had fixed wings and were more like gliders. He imagined launching one, appropriately, from a mountain “named after a great bird,” referring to Monte Ceceri, or “Mount Swan,” in Tuscany. Relishing the avian metaphors, Leonardo wrote that his “great bird will take its first flight on the back of the great swan, filling the universe with amazement, filling all writings with its renown and bringing glory to the nest in which it was born.” Nothing he designed ever flew. The contraptions were almost daft, but there was prophetic genius in his perception of the laws of nature that gave rise to his machines.

Robert Simon knew that, whatever the outcome of this trip—and that really could be everything or nothing—it marked the pinnacle of his career to date in the art world. If everything went well, he would probably earn a place in the art history books. If not, he would remain respected but unexceptional. This flight also represented the apogee of something more personal. In common with most art dealers, there was a motivation behind his career that had nothing to do with money or success, and that had shaped his life for somewhat longer: an unconditional, unrelenting love for art; not modern and contemporary art with its splodges, squiggles, and splats, but the great art of the past, especially the Renaissance, in which the eternal stories of the Bible and of ancient Greece and Rome were brought to life by the melodramatic gestures of bearded men and golden-­haired women, amidst thick gleaming crumples of silk and satin cloth, set against a classical backdrop of esplanades and porticos, temples and fortresses.

When he was fifteen, Simon went on a school trip to Italy. He still remembers the winding roads of the hills around Florence, the low sun flashing through the cypress trees as the bus drove toward the town of Vinci, the birthplace of Leonardo da Vinci, from Vinci. (By coincidence, my parents would take me on a similar trip in my own teenage years.) “Leonardo has been my deity for most of my life—and I am not alone,” Simon told me. “He’s my idea of the greatest person that civilization has produced.” Over the decades Simon had seen every major Leonardo exhibition that had been staged, and every Leonardo painting, and “as many drawings as I could.” His professional life, which now revolved around Leonardo, had taken him once before into the artist’s sphere, in 1993, when he was asked to examine the Leicester Codex, one of Leonardo’s revered manuscripts, for its owners. It is now owned by Bill Gates, but then belonged to the oil magnate Armand Hammer’s foundation.

Simon’s family was well-­to-­do but had not been deeply involved in art. His father was a salesman of eyeglasses. Simon was sent to an exclusive, academically oriented high school, Horace Mann School, in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. Afterward he specialized in medieval and Renaissance studies, and then art history, at Columbia University. He wrote his PhD on a newly discovered painting by the sixteenth-­century Italian Mannerist painter Agnolo Bronzino, which was held in a private collection. A portrait of the Florentine Medici ruler Cosimo I in gleaming armor, it was known from the many copies, around twenty-­five of them, which hung in museums and homes, or sat in storerooms around the world. Art historians had long considered that the original work was the one in the Uffizi, Florence’s famous museum. However, in a story with uncanny parallels to that of the painting that he was now taking to London, the young Simon had argued that he had identified an earlier original of this painting, the owners of which wished to remain anonymous. He published an article about it in the esteemed journal of connoisseurship and painting, the Burlington Magazine. The painting now hangs in an Australian museum, as a Bronzino, although some experts still believe it was painted by the artist’s assistants.

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The Last Leonardo: The Secret Lives of the World's Most Expensive Painting 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Marginaliant More than 1 year ago
The Last Leonardo is a refreshing look at one of the most curious works of art that has surfaced in the art market lately. This was not my first encounter with the Salvator Mundi, as I worked as an art dealer and followed the case closely when it was being shopped around. Later, in 2017 when it broke the record for the most expensive painting ever sold, I had some serious doubts. The book is divided into roughly three intertwining sections. One is a biography of Leonardo Da Vinci. This is a fairly general biography that doesn't add much new but does give the uninitiated a better idea of who Leonardo Da Vinci was and why he has become almost an archetypal artistic genius. Another follows the art dealer Robert Simon in the early 2000s as he attempts to research, restore (with the help of Dianne Modestini) and sell the Salvator Mundi. The last section follows the Salvator Mundi's provenance over the course of the nearly five hundred years from the time it was produced until now. Of these three sections, I think many people would find this third section the most tedious. Lewis is very thorough in explaining how old masters were "restored" (or overpainted), cropped, destroyed, re-attributed, and lost over the course of centuries. However, I thought it was absolutely necessary to support the most interesting part of the book: Ben Lewis poking holes in the sketchy attribution and even sketchier provenance of the Salvator Mundi. This book would be my recommendation for anyone who is interested in learning more about the Salvator Mundi as this book gives the most detailed history of the painting and the mystery surrounding it that I have read. Further, I think Ben Lewis has a great sense of humor and a great sense of drama, which makes parts of this novel read like a gripping true crime tale. It was a joy to read.