Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Aug 10, 2021 7:47 pm 
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A doubtful 'Leonardo' that became the world's most expensive painting

In this excellent, compulsively watchable documentary, the most important, one might even say tormented, figure, is the restorer, Dianne Modestini. But many other figures come and go. It turned up, this painting, at an estate sale in New Orleans in 2005. Robert Simon, a dealer and art historian of Italian Renaissance painting, and his associate, Alexander Parish. two specialists in "sleepers" -- under-attributed perhaps-old master paintings -- got wind of it, and bought it for $1175. Good investment: it was going to wind up selling at auction (Christie's) 12 years later for $400 million, plus $50.3 million in fees, the most ever paid at auction for a work of art. The high-end final buyer was the new and controversial young Saudi Arabian ruler, Mohammed bin Salman ("MBS"). He had recently taken power and splurged on other things such as a half-billion-dollar yacht and a $300 million French chateau. But that comes later in what is, most of all, a juicy art story, which is, these days, ultimately a juicy story about money, and lots of it - and - this is newsworthy - about how art is now more and more used as a tool in high-level secret money-laundering, money-moving and money-stashing. As money.

We are going to be seeing images of this painting, entitled 'Salvator Mundi', many times, in various stages of repair, and we are going to see the usual string of talking heads. But the 42-year-old Danish director, Andreas Koefoed, who utilizes a whopping five writers somehow without loss of smooth flow, adopts several nice little devices to enhance these standard doc rituals, with results as smooth and slick as any restoration of a dubious old master.

In order to make his classy heads, who include the sleeper-hunters; a tricky, now ruined art-sale middle man; the former National Gallery of London curator, Luke Syson; the restorer, Dianne Modestini and various other experts even classier, Koefoed poses them with elegant, symmetrical backgrounds that make them and wherever they live or work look better. The heads talking are interlaced with posh places like Paris, London and the Louvre. And then we wind up with MBS's royal yacht and his French chateau, which are super-extra-kingsize accoutrements. We are imbedded deep in the world of the expert and the rich.

As for the 'Salvator Mundi,' it goes through some very significant changes as well, duding up, you might say. When we first see it, it's a piece of wood with a significant knot in the lower middle section and only a small portion that might be original, with everything else heavily, badly over-painted; and the painted-over portions aren't smooth, either, but have many bare strips. There is no frame. We see it carried back and forth in a plastic garbage bag, then in a standard zip-up portfolio. Then Simon and Parish show it to Modestini. She shows it to her elderly restoration expert and successful art dealer husband, Mario Modestini. He feels a "presence." She falls in love with it. He dies. She spends five years working on its restoration, first stripping off the bad overpainting, then doing her own smooth work to bring the work together. Her New York apartment, and her studio, with its big window, appreciatively, and repeatedly, photographed from inside and out, are very pretty, by the way -- and right in the best part of Manhattan. It's dark and full of old master paintings, with little metal sculptures on antique furniture. In the end, the 'Salvator Mundi', which some (including me; but then I don't like Leonardo's pantings that much) consider thoroughly ugly, is mounted in a handsome decorated renaissance-style frame, which in itself makes it look imposingly old-masterish.

A key moment is a show of Leonardo at the National Gallery, where the curator, Luke Syson - who I would say is the most shamefaced talking head in the film -- chooses to include the "new" 'Salvator Mundi' and invite a brace of art experts, several of whom are heard from here, none of whom said either that this was a Leonardo or that it was clearly not. That was quite enough to raise the value of the painting exponentially. Doubters, including a CIA art fraud specialist, point out the painting's inclusion in the National Gallery show that people lined up overnight for was not due to its authenticity, but for its ability to draw a crowd to see a "lost Leonardo."

With this rise in perceived value, Simon and Parish call in Warren Adelson, a man known for engineering high end art sales. He tries to sell the restored 'Salvator Mundi' to museums, starting with those of Boston and Houston, where he has personal connections. No museum will buy it; they can't get the funds to. The reason is obvious: the sketchy provenance, the trail of ownerships and sales that traces a work of art back to its origins. Nothing can be found further back than 1900, making the authenticity of the painting too uncertain. Beyond that is the fact that there are only eight certain Da Vinci paintings known, and the chance of another one turning up in New Orleans is so unlikely.

But when later Ms. Modestini says she wishes the painting had been bought by a museum - and then all this would never have happened, one warmly sympathizes. What happened next makes a fantastic story about today's crazy, morally sketchy art business -- and how the superrich use art alternately to show off or to launder money - but it doesn't make much sense except in the world of booms and crazes that can do little good for connoisseurship, art appreciation, or humanistic culture.

The next person who bought the painting from its two owners was the dodgy Yves Bouvier, who lived in Geneva, inherited a shipping business, and had been connected with "freeports" - places near international airports where the rich store art to avoid taxes. The oldest and largest freeport in the world, established in 1888, is in Geneva. It's apparently home to 1.2 million works of art, three times as many as the Louvre. We get a glimpse of this place: it's astonishing, all the big boxes containing paintings anonymous and alike in size. (Apparently I would know about freeports if I had watched Christopher Nolan's Tenet; I did not.) Yves Bouvier was a speciist in money laundering: art stored in his Geneva freeport could be bought or sold clandestinely, as being "in transit," and hidden away there.

We hear about Yves Bouvier's deal both from himself and from Geneva-Palermo based freelance journalist Antoine Harari, whose French is as good as his English, whose speciality is white collar crime and who studied the sale of 'Salvator Mundi' by Yves Bouvier to a Russian Oligarch self-exiled in Geneva, Dmitry Rybolovlev. The Russian had asked Bouvier, who'd found art for him before, to get him the 'Da Vinci.' Bouvier found nobody wanted that painting and warned against it, but then, since the Russian persisted, in 2013 got if for him, and profited excessively. He was caught at it by the Russian, and penalized, and has been stripped of most of his wealth, and the billion dollars profit he made for himself selling Rybolovlev's art collection.

Through accessing "a lot of court documents" Harari & co. found a trail of contrived emails about 'Salvator Mundi' that traces bargaining by Bouvier with sellers that never took place, designed to convince Rybolovlev to pay a huge markup, to $127.5 million, that Bouvier pocketed, having paid only $83 million -- to Rybolovlev's extreme displeasure when he saw how hugely he had been cheated. Bouvier is one of the heads; he is present for the discussion of his malfeasance and subsequent ruination when found out.

Now comes the final stage. Rybolovlev was so pissed off he commanded Bouvier to sell all the art he had collected, including 'Salvator Mundi' -- despite the fact that, however high the prices he had paid, the rest of it had a reliable provenance and was authentic. This was when 'Salvator Mundi' got the world class hard sell that led to its record sale price. As perhaps the film should not need to tell us but does, the major auction houses are interested in moving big money, and will take all the hype they can get to do so. Christie's filmed pre-sale advert for 'Salvator Mundi' was a doozy, showing a string of faces (including Leonardo DiCaprio - who once starred in Catch Me If You Can, about a consummate scam artist) ogling the painting wide-eyed and weeping.

Christie's New York HQ was packed like sardines for the sale. A now celebrated (or infamous?) painting by the most famous, rare, and haunting artist of the Italian High Renaissance. And we see the sale, with the kind of the la-di-da auctioneer Jerry Saltz makes fun of putting on a show. The mysterious on-the-phone bidders. The mysterious buyer, who later emerges as MBS - not surprising it should be the Saudi king, since such a bidder had to represent a country, not someone merely wielding his own money. Briefly, the painting emerges into the limelight. There is another, much bigger Leonardo show - at the Louvre. The 'Salvator Mundi' was going to be included in it, too - but at the last minute, was not. At fist we suspect the Louvre's director took heart when warned by Leonardo expert Jacques Franckh against certifying the painting in this way. In fact, it appears MBS had pressured him to show 'Salvator Mundi' in the same room with the 'Mona Lisa and when he refused to do this, withheld the painting. And so we suppose - especially since we're reminded that a representation of Jesus, a prophet of Islam, would be considered blasphemous - it must be reposing in the freeport at Geneva. Or in a tent or a chateau or on a yacht? No one knows where it is now.

The "victim" of the story is nice, sensitive Ms. Modestini, who when she got to the place where the skin blends to the lip of Christ in the painting, became convinced only Leonardo could have done it. She loved this painting so much. It is really her masterpiece that has turned into her Frankenstein monster. But no matter: she was "generously" rewarded by a small cut of the Simon-Parish sale. Along the way we have learned that certain authorities, notably New York Magazine art critic and columnist Jerry Saltz, consider the attention paid to this painting absurd. Maybe $1175 was a good price for it; maybe some "sleepers" had best remain asleep. Nonetheless, Andreas Koefoed tells a great story here.

The Lost Leonardo, 96 mins., debuted Jun. 13, 2021 at Tribeca, and shown Jun. 26 at Washington DC (AFI DOCS). Sony Pictures Classics will release it in theaters in New York and Los Angeles Friday, Aug. 13, 2021. It will later (Sept. 17) expand to theaters nationwide.

See Ârt News for a positive review. Modestini, who is also a professor of art conservation at NYU, has a website, Salvator Mundi Revisited, providing all the information she has about the painting.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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