Throughout his fascinating and persuasive account, Lewis remains balanced; the Salvator Mundi might be exactly what its supporters claim it to be, even though it sits in “a pool of theories, surrounded by a tangle of conjecture, suspended from a geometry of clues”. The current owner isn’t helping: the painting was due to go on show at the Louvre Abu Dhabi last autumn, but never appeared and no reason has been given. So, for now, the Salvator Mundi has returned to the obscurity where it has spent so many centuries.
Needless to say, a veritable army of scholars, experts, connoisseurs and FBI agents have contributed in one way or another to the provenance of the Salvator Mundi. Lewis seems, at times, at pains to refute their claims about the painting, and to make new ones. But he’s wise enough to realise that the value of the Salvator Mundi, like it’s supposed sister Mona Lisa, is in the questions, not the answers, which are prompted by the faint smile its history evokes. Although many of his sources would disdain the idea that their work served any “practical economic purpose,” there is no doubt that they’ve helped Ben Lewis put together a deliciously detailed, satisfying book, that is simultaneously a call for change.
Ben Lewis, in this dogged and entertaining piece of reporting, casts serious doubts on its authenticity as an autograph work. He argues that it was “easy to see how a potpourri of interests — financial, political and even psychological — combined to turn a workshop painting into a Leonardo”....Lewis, a visiting fellow at the Warburg Institute, an art critic and documentary maker, has uncovered — through thorough research and interviews with the main players — many discrepancies in the sanctioned story of Salvator Mundi. Rather than a dry-as-dust art monograph, the result is a pacey detective story.
The story of the world’s most expensive painting is narrated with great gusto and formidably researched detail in Ben Lewis’s book. He has talked to just about everybody involved, even the publicity-shy Rybolovlev, whom he describes as a “textbook oligarch” with the “blank air” of the billionaire. The book is timed well, as celebrations gear up for the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death on 2 May. Lewis has a background in arts journalism and documentary films: snappy reportage of mega-buck deals is his element. But to his credit, much of the book is in a rather different mode of patient historical investigation.