The Last Leonardo, by Ben Lewis

The plural in the subtitle tells it all: “The Secret Lives of the World’s Most Expensive Painting.” Lewis has pulled off a relatively impossible feat, he has published a riveting non-fiction account of a painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci that reads like a detective novel and an expose of the murky world of art, finance and collecting.

The Salvator Munti is a painting of Christ, and is now considered to be the 15th painting attributed to the genius da Vinci.

It spoils nothing but distills the enigma of the piece to trace the prices paid for this piece in the last several years:

  • 2005: purchased at a New Orleans auction house for $1,175.
  • 2013: purchased at Sotheby’s for $80 million.
  • One day later: purchased by a Russian oligarch for $127.5 million.

But as Lewis points out, “Nothing in the known universe – no item, object, or quantity of material – has ever appreciated in value as fast.”

That trajectory covers the first three quarters of the book. The next sale is four years later for $450 million to Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Saladan.

Lewis, noted author and art historian, meticulously traces the piece’s mysterious provenance, and shines a light on the gossamer strength on which too many pieces of art depend in terms of history and hence value.

With stops all over the globe, Lewis takes us from Italy to London to Singapore to Monaco with myriad stops in between, across five centuries. The detail almost becomes numbing, but with clever jumps in time, he refreshes our love of the chase.

Most intriguingly, he speculates on why the Saudi Arabian promise to display the piece at the Louvre Abu Dhabi collapsed. The death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the visits by Trump and Kushner to Saudi Arabia almost spin the story into the realm of fiction, but as we discover truth is stranger indeed. This piece of art has not been seen in public for many years, and the question lingers if it will ever be.

This is a fine book for anyone perplexed about how prices for fine art seem to climb inexorably, and for anyone (which should be all of us) amazed at the prowess of Da Vinci.

The Last Leonardo, by Ben Lewis (Ballantine)

 


Brad Auerbach has been covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.

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