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‘Savior For Sale: Da Vinci’s Lost Masterpiece?’ and Our Obsession With Scandal

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‘Savior For Sale: Da Vinci’s Lost Masterpiece?’ and Our Obsession With Scandal
Savior For Sale: Da Vinci’s Lost Masterpiece? Zadig Productions

Why are we so fascinated about the world of fine art and scandal? Why do we flock to programs about art thefts like Netflix’s four part series This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist (2021) or the breaking of wills for fun and profit in The Art of the Steal (2009) about the controversy and history of the Barnes Foundation in Pennsylvania? Now we’ve got the scandalous story of the Leonardo Da Vinci painting Salvador Mundi in the recently released Savior For Sale: Da Vinci’s Lost Masterpiece? (2021). It’s the second documentary about the painting, the first being Lost Leonardo.

How exactly did a painting found in a New Orleans auction house for $1,175 in 2005 end up selling for a record-breaking $400 million at Christie’s Auction House in 2017? That’s not including the $50 million for the auction house. 

The documentary explores the wealth of controversies surrounding the “Lost Leonardo” through interviews with the key players. It presents its cast of characters, naming them “The Merchant,”  “The Expert,” “The Journalist,” “The Right-Handed Man” etc., kind of like the characters of a real-life Ocean’s 11. Except the heist is the sale of a dubiously authenticated painting for hundreds of millions of dollars.

The central issue about the documentary is the painting’s authenticity, going through each interested party’s reasoning behind their decision. The film starts with Robert Simon, labeled “The Merchant”, who was the art dealer who found the painting in 2005 and his belief in the painting based on the discovery of a second thumb in the restoration process. Simon talked about how they considered all possibilities, like a copier changing their mind about the position of the thumb. Eventually, his team decided that the second thumb was a pentimento, a change made by the artist that is obscured under paint. To the viewer, this doesn’t seem like a strong basis for the painting to be an authentic Da Vinci. 

And then how the National Gallery in the United Kingdom got involved and  invited five experts to look at the painting. One definitively said no, one said yes, and the others were noncommittal. Yet despite this ambiguous meeting of the minds, Luke Syson, “The Curator” at the National Gallery, decided to include it in the seminal Leonardo exhibition in 2011-2012.

It reminded me of Sharon Waxman’s Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World (2008) where she talks about the tradition of giving legitimacy to privately held works of art by putting them in museum shows or permanent display. In other words, you show this treasure amongst other treasures to prove that it is also a treasure. It’s a bit recursive but an obvious and useful tactic to legitimize works of art.

While the film goes on to the other subsequent tests (or lack thereof) about the authenticity of the painting, what I find even more interesting is the insight it gives into the world of the ultra-wealthy. There’s a section where the film focused on Dmitry Rybolovlev, known as “the Oligarch”, who initially buys the painting for $127.5 million. 

At one point, the film talks about how the painting (along with the others in his collection) was bought through a separate company Mei Invest LTD, rather than owned directly by Rybolovlev, for tax purposes. It’s an excellent demonstration of what Brooke Harrington talks about in her 2016 Capital Without Borders: Wealth Managers and the One Percent. Harrington talks about how the ultra-wealthy use shell companies, often Limited Liability Companies, as a way to protect their assets from taxes, divorce, and other wealth-diminishing events. It is also useful to protect the anonymity of a person since figuring out who actually owns the assets can be a challenge.

1633853257 310 ‘Savior For Sale Da Vincis Lost Masterpiece and Our Obsession
Christie’s Alan Wintermute on CBS this morning

Going even further, there’s a notable scene where the painting is shown being stored away in a warehouse with Rybolovlev’s other masterpieces. It’s a little like the last scene of Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark when the Ark is boxed up and sent away to a storehouse of many treasures. Added with the whole shell company aspect, art feels like it’s merely another asset to be hoarded rather than a work of art to be enjoyed.

Or there’s a great scene with Chris Dercon, president of the Réunion des musées nationaux Grand Palais (RMN-Grand Palais), when he talks about how he was asked by the Saudis to help them with their vast cultural project, he says, “Sometimes you need missionaries and mercenaries like me to open doors.” The film labels him “The Mercenary,” of course. With enormous amounts of money, anything is possible, even access to top institutions.

The documentary also shows that when large amounts of money is at stake, everyone wants a piece. Shortcuts may be taken, people may get overly optimistic (at best) or omit critical information that could impact the sale price. Even without the questions of authenticity, there’s shenanigans with just the sale of paintings to the rich and famous. Scott Reyburn, “The Journalist” of the New York Times, aptly says, “The art world is full of people who want to make huge amounts of money out of rich people.” 

Given the subject of the work, I feel that there was a bit of an omission about the religious meaning of the painting. There’s some mention that various owners wanted the painting because of its subject but a bit of a deeper dive might have been interesting. What does it mean to sell a painting of Jesus for that much money? What are the theological implications? 

The film gets close to showing the importance of the subject when it shows footage of audience reactions to the painting at Christie’s where the film shows people crying or mouths open in awe. Clearly, they were having incredible reactions to the painting. (Also a sign of the wonderful marketing strategy that Christie’s employed.) Then again, it might have taken a detour in the film’s exploration of the business of the art world. 

Towards the end, we get the answer to the question about why we are so fascinated by these stories. Martin Kemp, “The Expert,” concludes, “If I’m wrong, nobody’s died. Somebody’s lost a lot of money.” At the end of the day, the story is about art, rich people, and their money. Unlike most True Crime podcasts, books and shows, nobody has died, gone to prison or faced the destruction of their family and friends. Here it’s just money and reputation on the line, so there’s perhaps less guilt in watching how these actions unfold. 

The film is available for streaming on platforms Apple TV+ / iTunes and Amazon Prime Video as well as in theatres.

‘Savior For Sale: Da Vinci’s Lost Masterpiece?’ and Our Obsession With Scandal

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David Brooks: The Southern Baptist moral meltdown

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David Brooks: The Southern Baptist moral meltdown

They dedicated their lives to a gospel that says that every human being is made in the image of God. They dedicated their lives to a creed that commands one to look out for the marginalized, the vulnerable. The last shall be first. The meek shall inherit the Earth.

And yet when allegations of sexual abuse came, the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention betrayed it all. Those men — and they seem to have all been men — must have listened to hundreds of hours of pious sermons, read hundreds of high-minded theological books, recited thousands of hours of prayer, and yet all those true teachings and good beliefs had no effect on their actual behavior.

Instead, according to an independently produced report released by the convention this week, those leaders covered up widespread abuse in their denomination and often intimidated and belittled victims. More than 400 people believed to be affiliated with the church, including some church leaders, have been accused of committing abuse.

One woman, Jennifer Lyell, said she’d been sexually abused while a student at a Southern Baptist seminary. In an article, the church’s communications arm made it sound as if she were confessing to a consensual affair. Paige Patterson, then the head of one seminary, told one student not to report a rape, according to the report, and later, at another seminary, “emailed his intention to meet with another student who had reported an assault, with no other officials present, so he could ‘break her down.’”

Those leaders’ stated beliefs and sacred creeds had zero effect on their actual behavior, just as similar creeds and beliefs had zero effect on the Catholic bishops who behaved in much the same way when they learned of abuses years ago.

How can there be such a chasm between what people “believe” and what they do? Don’t our beliefs matter?

The fact is, moral behavior doesn’t start with having the right beliefs. Moral behavior starts with an act — the act of seeing the full humanity of other people. Moral behavior is not about having the right intellectual concepts in your head. It’s about seeing other people with the eyes of the heart, seeing them in their full experience, suffering with their full suffering, walking with them on their path. Morality starts with the quality of attention we cast upon another.

If you look at people with a detached, emotionless gaze, it doesn’t really matter what your beliefs are, because you have morally disengaged. You have perceived a person not as a full human but as a thing, as a vague entity toward which the rules of morality do not apply.

In 2007, a woman named Christa Brown had the courage to testify before Southern Baptist officials that her youth pastor had repeatedly sexually assaulted her when she was 16. She reported that one official turned his back, literally refusing to look at her, refusing to see her. That is the sort of dehumanization that creates indifference that enables rape, abuse and all the other horrific dehumanizing acts down the road.

Character is not measured by a person’s beliefs but by the ability to see the full humanity of others. It is not automatic. It’s a skill acquired slowly. It’s about being able to focus on what’s going on in your own mind and simultaneously focus on what’s going on in another mind. It’s about learning how to minutely observe, absorb and resonate with other people’s emotions.

It comes about through years of shared experiences, decades of other-centered attention, engagement with the kind of literature that educates you in what can go on in other people’s heads.

As social scientists have shown in one experiment after another, it’s very easy to get people to dehumanize each other. You divide people into in-groups and out-groups. You spread a tacit ideology that says women are less important than men or Black people are less important than white people. You use euphemistic language so that horrific acts can be abstracted into sanitized jargon.

You tell a victimization story: We are under attack. They’re out to get us. They’re monsters. They deserve what they get. You tell a righteousness story: We do the Lord’s work. Our mission is vital. Anybody who interferes is a beast.

You bureaucratize: You create a system of nonresponsibility in which rules and procedures matter, not people. When you read the report on the Southern Baptists you realize, once again, how much horror can be done by dutiful functionaries who focus on minimizing legal liabilities but not honoring human beings.

Scholar Simon Baron-Cohen calls this “empathy erosion.” In his book “Moral Disengagement,” Albert Bandura detailed how Catholic leaders put a lot of effort into not knowing what was going on. After this shameful warning, Southern Baptist leaders did something quite similar.

We’re living in a period awash in cruelty — not only with abuse scandals, but also with mass shootings, political barbarism and the atrocities in Ukraine. How much will the pummeling act of experiencing the news these days lead to empathy erosion? Where will the forces of re-humanization come from? Apparently not from our religious elites.

David Brooks writes a column for the New York Times.

 

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Pete Alonso’s power boosts the Mets in win over Phillies

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Pete Alonso’s power boosts the Mets in win over Phillies

The Mets are living and dying with Pete Alonso’s power.

They have won 10 of the 11 games that Alonso has homered in this season, and Friday night’s 8-6 win over the Phillies fell into the majority.

Alonso cranked his 12th homer of the year in the third inning off Bailey Falter, a two-run 400-foot shot to left field that gave the Mets a nice, breathable five-run advantage over their division rivals. The Mets kept adding on, and they needed every insurance run, but it was the team polar bear that brought the party back to Citi Field to kick off the Amazin’s six-game homestand.

The Mets (30-17) had been flirting with their 30th win of the season since Tuesday, during their wild back-and-forth, three hour and 50 minute game against the Giants that went the other way. Had they won that night, the Mets would’ve become the second team in MLB to eclipse that mark, following only the Yankees who won their 30th game earlier on Tuesday. The Mets were the first team to reach 20 wins earlier this month.

Alonso’s home run in the third was also his 400th career hit, which means 29.5% of the first baseman’s hits since his 2019 rookie season have been dingers. Alonso also now leads MLB with 44 RBI.

Meanwhile, the Mets lived to deal with their growing bullpen problem another day.

Carlos Carraso pitched better than his final line suggested, because Mets manager Buck Showalter yanked him with runners on first and second in the sixth inning and reliever Chasen Shreve provided none of it when he promptly surrendered a three-run home run to Phillies catcher Garrett Stubbs.

All five runs that were charged to Carrasco came in the sixth inning, but none of the four singles he allowed were hit harder than 84 mph off the bat. So four softly-hit base hits, including two that never left the infield, and a walk to Odubel Herrera resulted in five earned runs on six hits across 5.2 innings and 85 pitches. Carrasco, whose ERA jumped to 3.98 following his ninth start of the year, had retired 15 of his first 18 batters, including seven strikeouts, before his outing went sideways in the sixth.

Shreve, on the other hand, has struggled in five of his last six relief appearances. The lefty specialist had been terrific for the Mets to begin the season, carrying a 0.74 ERA into his 11th relief appearance just a couple of weeks ago. But he has since allowed at least one earned run in each of his last half-dozen outings. The Mets have just one other left-handed bullpen arm in Joely Rodriguez, and both he and Shreve have been used plenty by Showalter through the team’s first 47 games.

Without Trevor May, who is on the injured list with a triceps stress reaction for at least the next couple of weeks, the Mets bullpen has been forced to pick up the slack with varying degrees of success. Going into the 2022 season, the Amazin’s relief corps was their weakest area on paper, and more than a quarter into the year, it remains that way.

But, for now, Mets relievers have recorded a 3.65 ERA overall, which ranks in the middle of the league at 15th. We’ve seen bullpen arms be impressive, while also costing some games. The league-average effort means GM Billy Eppler should be scouring the market yesterday for any acquisitions, but it’s also an area the Mets can potentially afford to wait to improve, in a bigger way, at the trade deadline.

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Uvalde school police chief faulted in shooting response

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Uvalde school police chief faulted in shooting response

By DAVE COLLINS and MICHAEL MELIA

The police official blamed for not sending officers in more quickly to stop the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting is the chief of the school system’s small police force, a unit dedicated ordinarily to building relationships with students and responding to the occasional fight.

Preparing for mass shootings is a small part of what school police officers do, but local experts say the preparation for officers assigned to schools in Texas — including mandatory active shooter training — provides them with as solid a foundation as any.

“The tactical, conceptual mindset is definitely there in Texas,” said Joe McKenna, deputy superintendent for the Comal school district in Texas and a former assistant director at the state’s school safety center.

A gunman killed 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School on Tuesday. As students called 911, officers waited more than an hour to breach the classroom after following the gunman into the building. The district’s police chief, Pete Arredondo, decided officers should wait to confront the gunman on the belief he was barricaded inside adjoining classrooms and children were no longer at risk, officials said Friday.

“It was the wrong decision,” Steven McCraw, the head of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said at a news conference Friday.

A group of Border Patrol tactical officers would later engage in a shootout with the gunman and kill him, officials said. Arredondo could not immediately be reached for comment Friday by the AP.

Across the country, police officers who work in schools are tasked with keeping tabs on who’s coming and going, working on building trust so students feel comfortable coming to them with problems, teaching anti-substance abuse programs and, occasionally, making arrests.

The police department for the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District says on its website that its primary goal is “to maintain a safe and secure environment for our future leaders to learn and our current leaders to educate while forming partnerships with students, teachers, parents, and the community while enforcing laws and reducing fears.”

The active shooter training was mandated by state lawmakers in 2019 in response to school shootings. Under state law, school districts also are required to have plans to respond to active shooters in their emergency response procedures.

Security can sometimes become lax because school officials and officers may not believe a shooting will ever happen in their building, said Lynelle Sparks, a school police officer in Hillsboro, Texas, and executive director of the Texas Association of School Resource Officers.

“It’s always making sure that you are prepared,” she said. “People get relaxed. It happens in every district. You can’t say that it doesn’t. It happens everywhere. We get to the point, ‘Oh my gosh. This is horrific. Safety Safety Safety.’ The school year goes by, ’Oh, why do I have to lock my door everyday, you know? I wish that every teacher would teach behind a locked door. It doesn’t make it a prison system. It’s about saving lives.”

Under the incident command approach that was widely adopted after 9/11, it is unsurprising that the school police chief would be considered the commander, even following the arrival of officers from other agencies, McKenna said. The designated person would be considered the commander until relieved by a higher-ranking officer, but that doesn’t necessarily happen immediately when efforts to save lives are continuing, he said.

“Obviously it’s still an ongoing investigation, but it would make sense that a police chief of a school district would be the initial incident commander,” McKenna said.

While many schools around the country host school resource officers who report to their municipal police departments, it is not uncommon especially in some Southern states and large cities for school districts to have their own police forces, like Uvalde.

McKenna said his research on school policing indicated that training and other factors mattered more than which agency was managing the officers.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re in a school police department or an SRO, its more about the components of any good officer,” he said.

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