Are We Done with Salvator Mundi Yet?
This commentary by Marion Maneker is available to AMMpro subscribers. (The first month of AMMpro is free and subscribers are welcome to sign up for the first month and cancel before they are billed.)
It’s Leonardo’s birthday. So the gift we seem to be giving him today is resolving some of the endless controversy over the Salvator Mundi and its whereabouts. Over the weekend, the Times in London published excerpts from a book about the painting by Ben Lewis whose previous claim to fame was declaring the art market a bubble.
Martin Bailey took to The Art Newspaper today to summarize Lewis’s claims which amount to a debate over whether the work was wholly or partially made by Leonardo. The National Gallery in London’s had shown the painting to five experts in 2008 to decide whether the painting should be considered a Leonardo. Two of the panel voted in favor, one against and two abstained, Bailey writes,
“they agreed that Leonardo had added his brush to parts of the picture, notably the orb and its foreshortened hand, the golden embroidery and, above all, the blessing hand. And the majority agreed that the face had been so badly damaged that they could no longer tell who had painted it.”
Lewis directly connects the painting’s $450m value to the National Gallery’s decision to show the painting as a Leonardo, despite the inconclusive vote, in 2011. But that ignores the painting’s private sale after the show. It also conveniently ignores the true selling point of Christie’s marketing plan for Salvator Mundi which was not the painting’s pristine condition or autograph authorship but the fact that the painting could draw visitors to a museum.
Christie’s did that with its tour global tour where the painting lined up visitors around the block at several different venues. That, more than any scholarship, is what drew the bidders to the sale.
This Monday morning, almost as if it had been planned as a response to Ben Lewis, New York Magazine published its own Salvator Mundi story outlining the history or the painting’s rediscovery, restoration and subsequent sales. This story is less concerned with the work’s authenticity (though it covers the issue and the debate around the extent of the restoration) and concludes with the answer to insincere question of the painting’s whereabouts which has been a favorite target of newspapers trying to generate controversy over the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s failure to put the work on display as previously promised:
According to several people with knowledge of the situation, the most plausible explanation is also the most straightforward. For the time being, the Salvator Mundi remains in a Switzerland free port — a kind of tax-free haven — while Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman mulls whether he wants to move forward with the gift or keep the painting for himself. “The Saudis are really trying to build their own tourism industry, and this would be a big tourist attraction,” one source told me. For a ruler wrapped up in an international controversy over the murder of the Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, this would make a good deal of sense — MBS would be just another in a long line of owners who used the painting as a way to spruce up his image.
The FBI’s Art Crime Team’s ‘Phone Rings Off the Hook’
— Tess Davis (@Terressa_Davis) October 23, 2018
Six months ago, this Tweet appeared reporting Special Agent Timothy Carpenter of the FBI’s Art Crime division made the assertion at a Smithsonian Conference on Cultural Property that the art market was being used regularly by criminals for illicit purposes.
At the time, we contacted the FBI to get more details on what the Art Crime division believes to be the weak spots. More to the point, we hoped to get some hard facts or first-hand anecdotes from the Feds about how criminals operate within the art market. The FBI would only talk off the record. They need not have bothered because the conversation was vague assertions about how the art market could be used to mask illicit financial activity.
We were reminded of that exchange late last week when Reuters ran a story on the FBI’s art crime division which was founded by Robert Wittman, who is now retired, and was run for some time after by a scholar and archeologist, Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, whose emphasis was on addressing the trafficking in antiquities that were a result of the war in Iraq. Reuters suggests the art crime team wasn’t viewed as place for gung ho agents.
Special Agent Carpenter disagrees:
- “People just think what we’re doing is cool,” said Carpenter, who now runs the unit from the FBI’s Washington headquarters.“I think we’ve changed a lot of perceptions, even within the organization,” he said. “So now my phone rings off the hook weekly for folks wanting to be on the team.”
Reuters goes on to add another suggestion from Special Agent Carpenter that the art market is rife with crime:
- “While there are no reliable statistics on art crime, Carpenter said he thinks technology is making things worse because stolen works and forgeries can be sold anonymously on online marketplaces.”
That quote sparked our interest because it was as vague as the follow up to Carpenter’s Smithsonian presentation. So we asked the FBI, again, if we could get some specific examples of what Carpenter was referring to in the Reuters story.
Carpenter responded with this statement:
Online marketplace (e-commerce sites), have made it easier to anonymously sell any type of property, including cultural property. There are now many, many online auction/gallery sites that provide electronic marketplaces for people to potentially sell stolen and/or faked/forged art without ever actually coming in direct contact with a victim. Because of the nature of technology these days, it is a very simple matter for a seller to obfuscate the origin/provenance of a piece, or to create listings using false identities. Buyers no longer have to visit “brick and mortar” galleries/auction houses to purchase high-value artwork. Now they can buy online, without ever knowing who they’re buying it from, and without the requisite knowledge/expertise to know if what they are buying is legitimate. This makes our job harder. It is more difficult for law enforcement to track questionable artworks online, and it has become increasingly more difficult to identify perpetrators who are savvy enough to effectively hide their identities online.
Using social media platforms to sell stolen/looted cultural goods provides even more room to operate anonymously in the online world. By using these platforms, criminals can advertise their wares enmasse from any location in the world, and reach a global consumer base.