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How to Sell a Savior

Bumelant loves art (they say three is lucky).

Our sally into the tales of the art world wouldn’t complete without the final part of the triptych — the story of the man himself, the Salvator Mundi. And, oh boy, does the old sport have a story!

At the time of its sale in 2017 Salvator Mundi was the most expensive painting ever sold. How couldn’t it be? The Lost Leonardo, the Last Leonardo, the Least Leonardo. The public relations team of its owners sure put a lot of effort into the crafty use of alliteration to drive up the hype and the price.

“Oh yes, we have to legally mention that it’s not even clear if Leonardo ever painted any sort of a savior painting. Even if he did, chances are that this is just one of more than a thirty copies painted by one of his students. It’s also heavily restored, so basically nothing of original remains.”

“Huh? What?”

“Nevermind, just look at the painting. Isn’t it pretty? Hypnotizing, you could say. Keep looking. All glory to the hypnotoad! Now write the 100+ million dollar check and shut up.”

That’s how we at Bumelant imagine every conversation of rich art connoisseurs and art dealers, trying to unload the painting of unclear provenance and dubious authenticity for the price hundred thousand times more than the price they bought it for. Yes, you heard it right!

In 2005, a couple of fellows from NYC — let’s call them Alex and Rob — purchase what is sold as a Leonardo copy at an auction in New Orleans for 1175 dollars. That’s a thousand bucks for which the two apparently had to pull their capitals. To bounce back from this bank-breaking investment, the painting had to be resold at least as a work of a Leonardo’s student. So the duo hires a well-known conservator to clean the painting up, restore it a bit, and sell it good as new. Miss Conservator, however, does such a good job that after preliminary examination, all kinds of tempting thoughts creep into the minds of our .wanna-be Leonardo owners. “Hey, do you think it could be a Leonardo?” asks Alex one day. To which Rob proudly replies, “I think it should be!”

Mind you, there is absolutely no evidence at this point that this is a painting by Leonardo, except for the pinky promises of the muchachos who own the painting. For all we know, it could as well have been painted by a turtle (wink, wink)! Yet, as our founder Art de Bumelant always said, “It’s all about the story”. And the story around the painting kept developing, rising its price tag from measle 1175 dollars to a hundred mil or so. Of course, the price tag put on the painting was still no more than a fanciful wet dream aspiration of Alex and Rob. But dream big, learn how to tell stories, and one day you might convince a bored oligarch or a desert prince that what some say is just a piece of junk is in reality the world’s greatest treasure.

Aside from the fact that there’s still no evidence that good ole Salvator is the work of the master turtle himself, the extensive restoration left no more than the tiniest part of the painting survive the brush of the conservator. Our amigo Theseus had this problem with his floating dinghy where he couldn’t really tell if it was original or not after every plank in his floating bucket was replaced. And so Salvator is as much a work of some old master as a work of a cat lady from New York. The little of Leonardo that there could possible be is believed to be there because a few experts dudes with degrees from fancy colleges said so. The rest of Salvator’s legitimacy comes from the fact that it was exhibited at a few prestigious art galleries, none of which firmly stood by the painting. It is, indeed, all about the story.

Of course in the world of big boys — Russian oligarchs, Saudi princes, and art dealers — all of that matters little. Art is but investment worth little more than its monetary value. Sometimes we wonder what people like these see when they look at a painting? Does the savior smile at them with dollar signs in his eyes or does his face slowly dissolve into running sequence of numbers, chart graphs, and market price movements? Who knows? One thing is certain: we sure wouldn’t trade the ability to appreciate art for art’s sake even for all the billions made in dubious art deals.

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