The Last Leonardo

The Secret Lives of the World's Most Expensive Painting

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An epic quest exposes hidden truths about Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, the recently discovered masterpiece that sold for $450 million—and might not be the real thing.
In 2017, Leonardo da Vinci’s small oil painting the Salvator Mundi was sold at auction. In the words of its discoverer, the image of Christ as savior of the world is “the rarest thing on the planet.” Its $450 million sale price also makes it the world’s most expensive painting.
For two centuries, art dealers had searched in vain for the Holy Grail of art history: a portrait of Christ as the Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci. Many similar paintings of greatly varying quality had been executed by Leonardo’s assistants in the early sixteenth century. But where was the original by the master himself? In November 2017, Christie’s auction house announced they had it. But did they?
The Last Leonardo tells a thrilling tale of a spellbinding icon invested with the power to make or break the reputations of scholars, billionaires, kings, and sheikhs. Ben Lewis takes us to Leonardo’s studio in Renaissance Italy; to the court of Charles I and the English Civil War; to Amsterdam, Moscow, and New Orleans; to the galleries, salerooms, and restorer’s workshop as the painting slowly, painstakingly emerged from obscurity. The vicissitudes of the highly secretive art market are charted across six centuries. It is a twisting tale of geniuses and oligarchs, double-crossings and disappearances, in which we’re never quite certain what to believe. Above all, it is an adventure story about the search for lost treasure, and a quest for the truth.

Praise for The Last Leonardo

“The story of the world’s most expensive painting is narrated with great gusto and formidably researched detail in Ben Lewis’s book. . . . Lewis’s probings of the Salvator’s backstory raise questions about its historical status and visibility, and these lead in turn to the fundamental question of whether the painting is really an autograph work by Leonardo.”—Charles Nicholl, The Guardian

“As the art historian and critic Ben Lewis shows in his forensically detailed and gripping investigation into the history, discovery and sales of the painting, establishing the truth is like nailing down jelly.” Michael Prodger, The Sunday Times

Under the Cover

An excerpt from The Last Leonardo

Chapter 1

Flight to London

Robert Simon had plenty of legroom on his flight to London in May 2008. He was flying first class, an unusual luxury for this comfortably successful but unostentatious Old Masters dealer, president of the invitation-­only Private Art Dealers Association. During moments of transatlantic turbulence he cast a glance down the aisle at one of the first-­class cabins’ closets, where he had been given permission to stow a slim but oversize case.

It contained a Renaissance painting, 26 inches high and 18 inches across, of a “half-­figure,” to use the old­fashioned art historical term, of Christ. The portrait composition showed the face, chest, and arms, with one hand raised in blessing and the other holding a transparent orb. One reason Simon was worried about the painting was that he had not been able to afford the insurance premium he had been quoted for it. He had bought it three years earlier for around $10,000—­or so he had told the media—­but it was now thought to be worth between $100 million and $200 million.

Far from being the life of luxury many people imagine, dealing in art can be a precarious existence even at the highest levels, because selling expensive paintings is, well, very expensive. Top-­end galleries have vertiginous overheads. Walls have to be repainted for each show, catalogues printed, wealthy collectors wined and dined. Simon had spent tens of thousands of dollars restoring the boxed painting, and had not yet seen a penny in return.

Solidly built, medium height, Jewish, fifty-­something, soft-­spoken, polite, Robert Simon is the kind of person who believes that modesty and understatement are rewarded by the higher forces that direct our lives. He projects a pleasant but slightly brittle calm. “Loose lips sink ships,” he likes to say, repurposing a slogan emblazoned on American propaganda posters in the Second World War to the business of art.

Simon leaned backward in his seat. He was overcome by that mood men fall into when they know the die has been cast, the pieces arranged on the board, and there is nothing more they can do except perform a sequence of now predetermined actions. There could be no more organizing, influencing, persuading. It was all done, to the best of his abilities. The confinement of the long pod of the aircraft cabin and the sensation of forward motion provided by the thrust of four jet engines combined into a physical metaphor for this moment in his life.

Alongside the submarine, the parachute, and the machine gun, the airplane was the most famous invention anticipated by the artist who had consumed Simon’s life for the previous five years. Leonardo da Vinci was not the first human who had designed flying machines, and it is likely he never built one himself, but he had studied the subject for longer, written more, and drawn designs of greater sophistication than anyone before him. His ideas for human flight were based on years of watching and analyzing the airborne movements of birds, bats, and flying insects, and recording his observations in notes and drawings. His resulting insights exemplified his uncanny ability to deduce the science behind natural phenomena. As Simon felt air currents lifting up the plane, he recalled how Leonardo was the first to recognize that the movement of air was as important to a bird’s flight as the movement of its wings.

On April 15, 1505, Leonardo completed the draft treatise On the Flight of Birds, also known as the Turin Codex. It was only about forty pages long, filled with unusually neat lines of text, written in black ink in his trademark mirrored handwriting, right to left, interspersed with geometric diagrams, and the margins sometimes decorated with tiny, beautiful sketches of birds in flight. Leonardo’s early ornithopters, or “birdcraft,” had wings shaped like a bat’s because, as he wrote, a bat’s wing has “a permeable membrane” and could be more lightly constructed than “the wings of feathered birds,” which had to be “more powerful in bone and tendon.” Leonardo positioned his pilot horizontally in a frame underneath the two wings, where he was to use his arms and legs to push a system of rods and levers to make them flap. Historians say Leonardo soon came to realize that the human body was too heavy, and its muscles too weak, to provide enough power for flight, so his later designs had fixed wings and were more like gliders. He imagined launching one, appropriately, from a mountain “named after a great bird,” referring to Monte Ceceri, or “Mount Swan,” in Tuscany. Relishing the avian metaphors, Leonardo wrote that his “great bird will take its first flight on the back of the great swan, filling the universe with amazement, filling all writings with its renown and bringing glory to the nest in which it was born.” Nothing he designed ever flew. The contraptions were almost daft, but there was prophetic genius in his perception of the laws of nature that gave rise to his machines.

Robert Simon knew that, whatever the outcome of this trip—­and that really could be everything or nothing—­it marked the pinnacle of his career to date in the art world. If everything went well, he would probably earn a place in the art history books. If not, he would remain respected but unexceptional. This flight also represented the apogee of something more personal. In common with most art dealers, there was a motivation behind his career that had nothing to do with money or success, and that had shaped his life for somewhat longer: an unconditional, unrelenting love for art; not modern and contemporary art with its splodges, squiggles, and splats, but the great art of the past, especially the Renaissance, in which the eternal stories of the Bible and of ancient Greece and Rome were brought to life by the melodramatic gestures of bearded men and golden-­haired women, amidst thick gleaming crumples of silk and satin cloth, set against a classical backdrop of esplanades and porticos, temples and fortresses.

When he was fifteen, Simon went on a school trip to Italy. He still remembers the winding roads of the hills around Florence, the low sun flashing through the cypress trees as the bus drove toward the town of Vinci, the birthplace of Leonardo da Vinci, from Vinci. (By coincidence, my parents would take me on a similar trip in my own teenage years.) “Leonardo has been my deity for most of my life—­and I am not alone,” Simon told me. “He’s my idea of the greatest person that civilization has produced.” Over the decades Simon had seen every major Leonardo exhibition that had been staged, and every Leonardo painting, and “as many drawings as I could.” His professional life, which now revolved around Leonardo, had taken him once before into the artist’s sphere, in 1993, when he was asked to examine the Leicester Codex, one of Leonardo’s revered manuscripts, for its owners. It is now owned by Bill Gates, but then belonged to the oil magnate Armand Hammer’s foundation.

Simon’s family was well-­to-­do but had not been deeply involved in art. His father was a salesman of eyeglasses. Simon was sent to an exclusive, academically oriented high school, Horace Mann School, in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. Afterward he specialized in medieval and Renaissance studies, and then art history, at Columbia University. He wrote his PhD on a newly discovered painting by the sixteenth-­century Italian Mannerist painter Agnolo Bronzino, which was held in a private collection. A portrait of the Florentine Medici ruler Cosimo I in gleaming armor, it was known from the many copies, around twenty-­five of them, which hung in museums and homes, or sat in storerooms around the world. Art historians had long considered that the original work was the one in the Uffizi, Florence’s famous museum. However, in a story with uncanny parallels to that of the painting that he was now taking to London, the young Simon had argued that he had identified an earlier original of this painting, the owners of which wished to remain anonymous. He published an article about it in the esteemed journal of connoisseurship and painting, the Burlington Magazine. The painting now hangs in an Australian museum, as a Bronzino, although some experts still believe it was painted by the artist’s assistants.

- About the author -

Ben Lewis is an art critic, author, documentary filmmaker, and visiting fellow at the Warburg Institute in London. He has written widely about art and culture for the international press, including The Times, The Telegraph, London Evening Standard, The Observer, Prospect, Libération, and Die Welt. His award-winning documentary films include The Beatles, Hippies and Hells Angels: Inside the Crazy World of Apple; Google and the World Brain; Poor Us: An Animated History of Poverty; The Great Contemporary Art Bubble; Art Safari; and Constantin Brancusi: The Monk of Modernism. Lewis has an MA in history and art history from Trinity College/Cambridge University, and he also studied at the Freie Universität in Berlin.

More from Ben Lewis

The Last Leonardo

The Secret Lives of the World's Most Expensive Painting


The Last Leonardo

— Published by Ballantine Books —