Robert Simon encountered a Leonardo da Vinci painting and got emotional. “I cried,” he told The Post of seeing the work hanging in Christie’s New York, displayed ahead of a 2017 auction. “Thank God the room was dark. The painting had been through what I had been through. This was personal.”
As chronicled in a new documentary, “The Lost Leonardo,” Simon, a respected NYC art dealer and historian, spent years working out whether or not this painting, Salvator Mundi, was the real thing. He endured the criticism of naysayers — New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz exclaims in the film, “It is no more real than any of the other dreamed-up scams and schemes…” after calling the work “a made-up piece of junk” — and had his supporters. “It is absolutely a Leonardo,” Martin Kemp, author of “Leonardo By Leonardo” and art history professor emeritus in Trinity College at the University of Oxford, told The Post. “For something to come from out of nowhere like this is extraordinary.”
Once owned by Simon and two partners, the Mundi began its currently heralded existence as a so-called “sleeper,” purchased by Simon and fellow dealer Alex Parish in 2005 for a stunning $1,150 via a low-key auction in New Orleans. Nobody knew what it was, much less what it could be worth. Simon and Parish had a history of finding sleepers — “Usually you buy one for $1,150 and sell it for $5,000,” said Simon — but this piece proved different.
Initial expectations, however, were low. “I was pleased that it was a real painting,” said Simon, who did not see it in-person before bidding. “But I was staggered by the repainting” — over the original work — “and the high-quality of the original that I could see.”
The likely best-case scenario at that point: It was a copy done by the master’s pupils or studio hands, which would still make it a major find. But Dianne Modestini, the esteemed art restorer who was brought on to repair the painting — which was practically falling apart after some 600 years of careless treatment — asked Simon to drop by her studio.
She showed him details of the subject’s lip. “It was so similar to that of the Mona Lisa,” Simon marveled, referring to da Vinci’s most famous work. “We tried to find an explanation.” But, between this feature and others, he added, “The only conclusion was that it had to be by Leonardo.”
Nevertheless, Simon admitted, “I referred to it as a Leonardo but, initially, I never believed it.”
After eight high-stress years of restoration, which included the tattered painting ending up in “five to seven” pieces before being meticulously fitted back together, Simon and his partners received their answer. In 2008, five Leonardo experts gathered in London, charged with opining on whether or not it was legit. A book entitled “The Last Leonardo” said the results seemed to be two “yeses,” one “no” and two “no comments.”
“That’s wrong,” said Simon. “Before a 2011 exhibition in London, I wrote to the scholars and they all confirmed attribution to Leonardo.”
That National Gallery show gave the work a de facto seal of approval. Art-lovers lined up and a roller coaster ride ensued. For starters, in 2012, the Dallas Museum of Art expressed interest in owning the coveted work. “It was there for nine months,” said Simon, adding that funding never coalesced. “That was a difficult moment.”
The painting returned to its owners. In 2013, Sotheby’s reached out and Yves Bouvier, a dealer and owner of freeports (facilities were art can be discreetly and securely stored), offered $80 million. Simon and his partners bit. “He definitely got a deal,” said Simon, describing himself as “beaten up” and ready to sell. “The next day he sold it [for $127.5 million]. Not bad for a day’s work.”
The purchaser was Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev. The Sotheby’s sale price went public and this work became part of a lawsuit: Rybolovlev claimed that Bouvier worked for him as a consultant (taking 1 percent on pieces steered his way) rather than a dealer. Bouvier disagreed. Whatever the case, a scorned Rybolovlev put the painting up for sale at Christie’s. That was when Simon enjoyed a moment with what had once been his da Vinci.
The work then sold for a record-setting $450 million to Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Attempts to exhibit the painting under his ownership stalled and its whereabouts are not exactly known. The movie points out that it hung for a time on his yacht. “That is crazy,” director Andreas Koefoed told The Post. “Humidity on a yacht is always high. It is not a good place for a painting.”
Simon said he doesn’t resent Rybolovlev’s hefty return and he’s glad people are recognizing the Salvator Mundi’s historical value.
“When it sold for that, I felt vindicated,” he said, adding that he anticipated it going for $280 million. “At the end, I made more money than I would have ever dreamt. The painting changed my life. I am happy for it.”
Metro | New York Post