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Controversial Salvator Mundi the missing link in massive Louvre exhibition?

A huge Leonardo da Vinci retrospective is set to open later this month at the Louvre to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the famous artist’s death. There will apparently be one huge omission from the once-in-a-lifetime exhibition, however—Salvator Mundi, which became the most expensive painting in the world when it sold at Christie’s for $450 million.

Visitors to the Louvre will undoubtedly be disappointed to miss out on the depiction of Christ with one hand raised in blessing, both for the painting’s own sake and for the surreal twists and turns of its history. From being plucked out of obscurity in a New Orleans auction house to earning a starring role in the apparent fraudulent schemes of Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier, to seemingly disappearing in recent months—the saga of Salvator Mundi, the last Leonardo work in private hands, seems larger than life.

A lucky find in the Crescent City

A Louisiana family picked up the painting for a mere $200 in 1958 and had it hanging in their house for years, completely unaware it was a da Vinci. Two art dealers, Robert Simon and Alexander Parrish, bought it in 2005 at a New Orleans estate sale for only $1,175. Simon and Parrish had an inkling that the painting could be valuable, but even they didn’t hope at first that the artwork was an authentic Leonardo, believing it to be a period copy done by one of Leonardo’s better students, perhaps Bernandino Luini.

Part of the reason why the art world was so slow to catch on to Salvator Mundi’s true value is that the painting was extremely damaged when Simon and Parrish bought it. Large cracks and thick layers of paint slapped on by previous restorers had left the masterwork in a poor state. After Simon and Parrish turned to expert restorer Dianne Modestini, however, they started to suspect that they might have stumbled upon the work of Leonardo himself.

Modestini labored over the painting for years, painstakingly restoring the bits that had been lost to the passage of time. As she worked, certain elements—such as a set of colour transitions in Christ’s lip which reminded her of the Mona Lisa, or an indication that Christ’s thumb had initially been positioned in a different way and then altered by the artist—made her increasingly convinced that she was looking at Leonardo’s work.

A cog in Yves Bouvier’s schemes

The restored work made its début as an “official” da Vinci at the National Gallery in London in 2011, and quickly caught the eye of a number of potential buyers, including Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, who was approached in 2013 regarding the opportunity of purchasing the unique masterpiece. He asked his longtime trusted art dealer, Swiss freeport magnate Yves Bouvier, for advice on whether or not to buy the painting.

Bouvier was sanguine about the possibility of buying the painting, telling Rybolovlev “If you like it, I will get it for you”. He did, selling Salvator Mundi to the billionaire for $127.5 million. What Rybolovlev didn’t know, however, is that Bouvier had just bought the painting himself from Sotheby’s—less than 24 hours before—for only $80 million.

This apparently wasn’t the only time that Yves Bouvier helped himself to such a generous commission. The Swiss entrepreneur is currently facing lawsuits from Rybolovlev around the world, alleging that he bilked the billionaire out of over $1 billion by reselling him paintings at a radically inflated rate.

Rybolovlev is also suing Sotheby’s, from which Bouvier purchased a number of the paintings, for $380 million—arguing that the famous auction house facilitated Bouvier’s fraud by providing him with deliberately inflated appraisals. According to documents released as part of the case against Sotheby’s, Yves Bouvier worked in concert with Samuel Valette, an executive at Sotheby’s, to develop these appraisals which lent a “veneer of legitimacy and expertise” to Bouvier’s sky-high prices.

The same pattern played out again and again. Valette sold Bouvier a Modigliani sculpture called Tête for €31.5 million, but on Bouvier’s request drew up a valuation of between €80 million and €100 million. For a Magritte work Bouvier picked up from Valette for $24 million and sold to Rybolovlev for $43 million, Sotheby’s provided a valuation of between $40 and $60 million.

These appraisals were apparently created to assuage Rybolovlev’s concerns that he had overpaid. In the case of the Gustav Klimt painting Water Snakes II, for example, Rybolovlev read—after having paid $183.8 million for the work— in the art press that the Klimt had been sold for $120 million by its previous owner. Samuel Valette then drew up a valuation for Bouvier listing the price as $180 million, according to the Russian billionaire’s complaint filed in the United States.

As for the Salvator Mundi sale which Bouvier pocketed a neat $47 million markup on, Sotheby’s has insisted that it did not know that the Swiss dealer intended to resell the work to Rybolovlev. Given that Valette accompanied Bouvier to Rybolovlev’s Manhattan penthouse to show him the da Vinci, this defense rests on shaky ground.

The case of the missing Leonardo

Being bought for peanuts at an estate sale and getting caught up in the battle between Bouvier and Rybolovlev would be a dramatic enough backstory for any painting, but Salvator Mundi continues to solicit its share of controversy. When it went over Christie’s auction block in November 2017, the da Vinci quickly blew past all expectations, selling to a then-unknown buyer for a staggering $450 million.

Rumours quickly flew that the winning bidder had been a Saudi prince bidding on behalf of Mohammed bin Salman, who intended to gift the painting to the newly opened Louvre Abu Dhabi. The Emirati museum postponed the long-awaited unveiling of the da Vinci indefinitely, spawning wild speculation—had experts determined that the painting wasn’t a genuine Leonardo after all? Is the painting languishing in a Swiss freeport, or perhaps floating around the Mediterranean on bin Salman’s yacht? Amidst the swirling controversies, two things seem clear: the “last Leonardo” will be missing from the Louvre exhibition this fall, and the painting will continue to fascinate the art world.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of EconoTimes.

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