Art of any kind is subjective. How we interact and perceive artistic work is a matter of personal taste and experience. It also determines the value of that art and whether that painting or film will stand the test of time. Is it able to reach beyond the boundaries of its immediate audience and engage with future generations? Will it be the topic of discussion at a college coffee shop or maybe even a sharp reference in a hit HBO series? The true worth of any art is really how it makes us feel. Our thoughts and emotions produced by brilliant or infamous works of art can inspire humanity in unimaginable ways.
Empires and countries throughout history have tried to control art’s narrative in order to subdue imagination and rebellion. Subjectivity still matters, but under the right circumstances, it can also be subdued. I would dare say that even art dealers, and the art community as a whole, have made a business out of manipulating the conversation around art. An obscure piece that barely gets any recognition may skyrocket in price with the right leverage. The currency exchange of priceless seems to fluctuate widely these days. While we should always view art with an inquisitive and open-minded eye, it’s important to research and give credit to its creator. But what if it’s not entirely clear who that is?
In The Savior for Sale, directed by Vitkine, it is 2005 and an art dealer in New York named Robert Simon is browsing various websites when he comes across an interesting painting in an online auction in New Orleans. Upon procurement of the painting for a rather small price, he determines that it may be a lost piece of art by Leonardo Da Vinci himself. His friend Dianne Modestini assisted in the restoration of the painting, removing previous efforts to touch up the work and applying fresh paint of her own. After a trip to London, the work was scrutinized by multiple art scholars and eventually placed into an exhibit for Da Vinci at the National Gallery in London with the title Salvator Mundi, Latin for Saviour of the World. There was not, however, unanimous consent about the painting, but the gallery allowing it to be displayed with Da Vinci’s name gave it legitimacy in the public eye. What transpires over several years is a concerted effort by multiple parties, for separate but similar motives, to promote the validity of Salvator Mundi as a real Da Vinci painting and as a result, increase its value and popularity exponentially. The end result is a $450 million dollar sale on November 15, 2017.
The film examines the art world from an outsider’s perspective. We get interviews from multiple points of contact, such as the art dealer, the auction house, the scholars and researchers, the buyers and intermediaries, and the museums and galleries. Media and journalists also play a part in the overall story. Not every citizen on the planet has stepped foot in a museum, but I’ll bet that most of them know the name, Da Vinci. So a well-timed report on a newly revealed work of art by the master inventor would definitely make an impression. What makes this story so fascinating isn’t whether or not the painting is real, which is still up for debate and for good reason, but how the art community and its clients behave as if it is. Of the five original art scholars who examined the painting initially, only one would claim it is a genuine article. One determined it wasn’t an original and the other three could not make a decision either way. That lack of certainty may have slowed its trajectory, but for only so long.
The exotic characters in this true story only add more color and life to the painting’s journey. The buyers are one thing, but the ones negotiating the sale and facilitating its change of ownership are something else. It’s all strangely legal, but anonymity can have its disadvantages. It’s also worth noting how easy it is for the wealthy to hide their valuables from taxation. Some things we attribute to criminals may just be the normal procedure of doing business. Or it could also be illegal.
I mentioned how multiple parties were invested in this painting being the real deal. It influenced several decisions throughout this brief moment in the painting’s life. Many people were encouraged, based on those decisions, to seek it out and attempt to purchase it. Galleries were willing to double-down and heavily promote it because of a singular authentication. It wasn’t until a very prestigious museum privately communicating doubts, based on their own research, did the painting finally hit a definitive roadblock. At this point the painting had been sold several times so there was no doubt among the buyers; but if a highly respected museum won’t display that painting, then you may have problems down the line convincing others as well.
I found the entire documentary interesting, but I thought it was unfortunate that there was no attempt in the film to trace the painting’s whereabouts prior to New Orleans. Not that it would have yielded any worthwhile results. Still, I am more than a little curious how a painting from a 15th-century Italian artist ended up in a home in the southern United States. Priceless works have found their way to Goodwills from time to time, but this is unreal, to say the least. I also would have liked a little more exhaustive detail on the process used to determine a painting’s authenticity. It’s the crux of the matter entirely. The integrity of art scholars hangs in the balance. Should that integrity be undermined by false works, it would damage the reputation of many institutions. Not to mention embarrass the buyers who shelled out ungodly sums for really good imitations.
The Savior for Sale is an astounding look at the art world. The fact that one painting could drive so many people, with unfettered enthusiasm, into a frenzy shows that a good narrative is really all it takes. It is a wonderful painting, but the story behind it makes it shine a little brighter in people’s minds. If it wasn’t a Da Vinci, and the dealer and art scholars merely highlighted its technical attributes and composition as those from an unknown contemporary artist, would there still be onlookers weeping in front of its canvas? The sincere side of me says yes because the spiritual depiction will bring out your emotions. It won’t be nearly as large as the Da Vinci crowd, but it will be enough to earn a return on the investment. The cynical side of me says that, with the right kind of marketing, anything can be made into a priceless work of art. Banksy does it without even trying. This is unfortunate because the commercialization of art is antithetical to his purpose. I feel like the Salvator Mundi further highlights the shortcomings of art as merchandise.
I highly recommend this documentary and if it does intrigue you please continue to learn more about how art is reviewed, presented, and sold throughout the world. I have faith in the integrity of certain institutions to uphold the standards they are known for and hope they continue to pursue the truth no matter the outcome. Art is important no matter where it comes from or who made it.
About The Savior for Sale
Synopsis: The story behind a recently uncovered painting of Leonardo Da Vinci. Tracing its journey from a New Orleans auction house to being the most expensive painting ever purchased.
Director: Antoine Vitkine
Runtime: 1 Hour, 37 Minutes