The Last Leonardo, Ben Lewis. New York: Ballantine Books, 2019.
Summary: The story of the Salvator Mundi, purportedly the last painting of da Vinci, sold in 2017 for $450 million.
Is it a genuine Leonardo…or not? That is the question running through this book, which traces the history of a painting that sold for the highest price of any work of art to date, $450 million in 2017. It is a painting of a blue-robed Christ with right hand raised in blessing while the left hand holds a crystal orb. It is titled Salvator Mundi (Latin for “Savior of the World”).
In 2005 Robert Simon, a distinguished New York art dealer, acquired the work from a Louisiana gallery for $1175. Painted on a poorly selected panel of wood that was falling apart, and overpainted during its history, it nevertheless caught Simon’s attention. At first he thought it could have originated in da Vinci’s workshop. He spent tens of thousands of dollars having the painting meticulously restored by Dianne Modestini, for whom the work represented part of her recovery from the grief of a lost husband. Art scholar Martin Kemp was brought in to authenticate the painting as was art historian Margaret Dalivalle–Kemp a believer, and Dalivalle increasingly uncertain.
Ben Lewis traces all the elements that go into the authentication of a painting. There are comparisons with established paintings of Leonardo, of which there are less than 20 extant. Things like the rendering of the hair, the fine details of anatomy, the folds of the robe argued for the authenticity. Yet for one who studied optics, the one dimensional character of the orb and the lack of distortion is problematic. Whereas Kemp saw the “zing” of a genuine Leonardo, many other gallery curators, including Sotheby’s back in 2005, failed to recognize it as anything more than a derivative work.
Much of the book attempts to establish the provenance of the painting from Leonardo’s workshop to the present. We are left with gaps that, despite Simon’s description, leave the provenance of the painting up for question. There is also the question of the restoration, including how substantial Modestini’s restoration went. In truth, even if the painting was Leonardo’s, what was left was only a fraction of his work.
We also see the tireless and shrewd efforts of Simon, and his later partner Alex Parrish, to promote the painting including arranging a National Gallery exhibition of the painting in 2011 and the maneuverings that finally led to the painting’s sale to Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2017 for the highest price ever paid for a work of art, only for it to remain in storage in a Swiss vault, hidden away from the world, and the possibility of the painting either being accepted or disproven as an authentic Leonardo, the last Leonardo.
Ben Lewis takes us on a fascinating journey into the rare art world and all the difficulties of condition, style, and provenance of Old Masters. We also see one of the greatest gambles made by an art dealer, and the tremendous return it eventually yielded. Lewis also introduces us to the new reality of art as investment–objects to be stored until they appreciate and not to be displayed. At the end, we are still left wondering, did bin Salman spend the most ever spent on a genuine Leonardo, a product of his workshop, or another talented imitation. It may be that neither he nor we will ever know.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing. The opinions I have expressed are my own.