Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Review: The Last Leonardo by Ben Lewis

The ins and outs of the art world are fascinating. How does the value of a painting get determined? How can we be certain that pieces are in fact the product of the famous artist the museum plaque claims they are? What kind of labyrinthine journey has a particular painting gone on before being acquired either privately or by a museum? It turns out the art world is rife with disagreements about provenance, claims unable to truly be substantiated, and missing histories but none of this hampers the high prices sometimes paid for these disputed works. Author Ben Lewis tracks the journey of Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi, perhaps the original painting copied by his students and painted by the master himself, or perhaps not da Vinci's work entirely, or perhaps not at all da Vinci's, in his book The Last Leonardo.

You'd never have guessed, when da Vinci's Salvator Mundi came up for auction and subsequently sold for the unheard of price of $450 million dollars, that it was the subject of much debate, allegations of fraud, and still simmering questions of provenance. Long the subject of conjecture and considered missing, the painting ostensibly reappeared in 2005, when, if it is in fact the Leonardo it is purported to be, it embarked on just the latest of a long line of travels through the art world. Lewis tracks the restoration of the painting, many of the major players involved in authenticating it as a da Vinci work, it's eventual exhibition despite the rules surrounding which paintings can be exhibited, and the questions still swirling around this impossibly valuable artwork. The story is involved, often convoluted, and unresolved.

But that very difficulty in tracing the painting's past indisputably back to da Vinci, the financial dealings and their tax implications, and the explanation of da Vinci's artistic signature and whether those attributes are present in the Salvator Mundi or not, make the narrative thick and expansive. This is an art history tale about the possible provenance of one painting but also about the art world as a whole, both now and throughout history. It is about the sky-high prices art can command, the exclusivity and problems with private art collectors. It is also about the intersection of art and politics, art and wealth, art and perception/truth. Lewis meticulously and exhaustively researched his story but that sometimes results in too much minutia and a narrative that tries to follow too many threads. Some of it was truly fascinating while other parts really bogged down. The idea of a lost Leonardo da Vinci painting, albeit in poor condition, being discovered in a gallery in Louisiana for less than $2,000 is an intriguing one. It makes us all believe that we too might find something immeasurably valuable in our attics once day if we just look hard enough. The idea ends up being a bit more intriguing than the true story though, even with all of the twists and turns, at least for me.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I have had to disable the anonymous comment option to cut down on the spam and I apologize to those of you for whom this makes commenting a chore. I hope you'll still opt to leave me your thoughts. I love to hear what you think, especially so I know I'm not just whistling into the wind here at my computer.

Popular Posts