ME AND "SALVATOR MUNDI" DOWN BY THE SCHOOLYARD


Stephen Fife

Stephen Fife

Writer, Non-Registered Critics


Here is a twisted tale, a true story for all of you who believe in a world where good will triumph and evil will get the punishment it deserves.

By now you have probably read that "Salvator Mundi," a painting currently attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, has been sold by Christie's for over $450 million, which is the largest amount ever paid for a painting by 250%.  I have a special relationship with this painting (as do a few other people, some of whom I know), and this caused me to stop into Christie's for a close-up viewing on my recent visit to NYC.  In fact, here's a photo of the painting I snapped in the black velvet chapel in which the cash cow was ensconsed:

If you check out the Wikipedia listing for Salvator Mundi (Leonardo), you will find the sentence "In 2005, the painting was acquired by a consortium of art dealers that included Robert Simon, a specialist in Old Masters."  The name "Robert Simon" is of course a common one; as I recall, there was an excellent 60 Minutes reporter named Bob Simon who died recently in a car crash.  But this Robert Simon will be familiar to those readers of my memoir The 13th Boy , as well as (and even more likely) of Marc Fisher's landmark report "The Master" in The New Yorker.  Yes, careful readers of "The Master" will recognize Robert Simon - now one of the world's major dealers in Renaissance Art - as the longtime companion of his former English teacher, Robert J. Berman.  And readers of my memoir will certainly recognize Robert J. Berman as the name of my abuser, who - when he couldn't seduce me - tried to drive me to suicide.

I have not seen Robert Simon since a bizarre encounter in Mr Berman's apartment 47 years ago, but according to Fisher's article - and to friends I made during the 2013 mediation with Horace Mann School - Simon does not make a move without clearing it first with Robert Berman.  (Asked by his sister what he would do if Berman wasn't around anymore to give him advise, Simon told her: "I would just ask myself what Mr Berman would do, and I would do that.")  All of which is a rather long-winded way of saying that, while Robert Simon may be credited with discovering the "lost" Leonardo painting underneath the sloppily-painted copy (which had sold shortly before for around $60), it is my belief that Robert J. Berman is the real sleuth behind the discovery.  And I am not alone in believing that.

So my phone rang yesterday afternoon, and it was Gene on the line.  Gene was another former student of Berman's, younger than me by two years, who had gone further down the road with him than I did, and who consequently has had a more difficult time than me in getting past him.

"I'm just so bummed by this art auction today, so bummed, because I know how happy it's making him," Gene said, adding that he needed to speak about it with someone who would get where he was coming from.

In point of fact, though - at least as far as I understand it - Berman and Simon and the rest of their "consortium" will not be benefitting from yesterday's windfall.  They first tried to sell the painting to a museum in Dallas, that exhibited the painting for a few months, but refused to offer more than $90 million, claiming that the painting had been damaged by "over-restoration."  The painting was then leant out to the National Gallery in London for a few months in 2011-12.  It was subsequently bought in 2013 by the Russian collector Dmitry Robolovlev for $127.5 million.  But alas, Mr Robolovlev's wife sued for divorce the following year, and she was awarded one of the largest settlements on record.  I imagine this might have something to do with why he turned around and sold Leonardo's "Savior of the World."  Or maybe he's just a great businessman and knew that the painting had been undervalued.  In either case, he reaped a huge profit.

Of course, so did Berman and Simon.  I've been told that they've been building yet another wing on their already-enormous mansion in the gated community of Tuxedo Park, New York, where they live beyond the reach of the law for Berman's many transgressions, thanks to New York's highly restrictive Statute of Limitations.

Me, I'm just trying to gather enough sheckels to make the rent for next month.  Yes, I'd rather be me than them any day, but I could sure use some of that money.

Then again, I look into the eyes of this Salvator Mundi and they tell me: "This too shall pass."

And so it will.

And Gene and I and countless others will do our best to hang in there as it does.