On Monday night a fine-feathered crowd assembled in Beverly Hills at the historic Greystone Mansion. Once the home of the patrician Doheny family, the manicured grounds and grand architecture (specifically the flagstone courtyard and arched coach house) were the perfect backdrop for the official introduction to the world of what was billed as a newly-discovered, fully authenticated sculpture by Renaissance Master Leonardo da Vinci.
The table-top size, 20-pound sculpture depicts a man in fancy 16th-century garments astride a galloping horse, his face recognizable from other portraits of him — Charles d'Amboise. Its style seems right and the sculpture is a lovely thing; but whether by some function of commercial skepticism or creative intuition, no rush of emotional recognition surges at the sight of it. As one might imagine, the story of the provenance of the Horse and Rider as it has been dubbed, is not quite so straightforward as the headlines suggest. To unravel it, one must sift through the carefully chosen phrasing of the press materials, compare it to the spoken remarks of the presenters, then examine the sculpture itself for tell-tale signs of Old Master genius. Perhaps it's best to start at the beginning…
According to the written materials, before his death in 1519, Leonardo was apparently in the relatively early stages of what would have ended up as a single, monumental sculpture depicting his friend and patron d'Amboise, on horseback. Accomplishing this would have involved several stages: the carving of a small-scale model in beeswax; the wrapping of the wax in a sturdy mold; the pouring of molten metal into that mold, which would melt the wax away in a process appropriately called “lost-wax;” the study and refinement of the design based on the resulting metal maquette; and finally the multi-part process of constructing the final monument. Leonardo died after only step one — carving the wax. Just how a 500 year-old beeswax sculpture survived the centuries to become characterized as a modern discovery of a proper da Vinci — and a very expensive edition of 1000 new sculptures came to be made from it — was the topic that set the crowd atwitter chez Doheny.
Again according to the materials, the beeswax sculpture was protected by Leonardo's favorite student, whose descendants (or at least someone — this part is fuzzy) for several hundred years until it went to Switzerland (under more fuzzy circumstances) at the outbreak of World War II. More fuzziness until 1985, when somehow Hoosier industrialist Richard Lewis ended up being allowed to see it on a trip to Switzerland, had it authenticated, and somehow caused what would have been Leonardo's second step — the creation of a mold from it — to happen. He then bought the mold, and promptly “stuck it in a closet” in his house in Indiana while deciding what if anything, was to be done. No further mention was made of the beeswax — the only link in the entire chain that anyone is even claiming to be 500 years old, or made personally by Leonardo.
At some point Lewis hooks up with Las Vegas-based Art Encounter, who are now the “worldwide distributors” for the limited editions of Horse and Rider, which at Greystone Mansion its owner Rod Maly consistently and somewhat unsettlingly referred to more than once as the “product” — kind of a no-no in fine art circles. Beyond that gaffe, his remarks and those of his son and business partner Brett Maly (resident art appraiser on the TV show Pawn Stars) were what one might expect, all wide grins and breathless enthusiasm.
One day not all that long ago, this consortium of businessmen decide it's time to take the mold out of Mr. Lewis' closet. Interestingly, in his speech, Mr. Lewis pretended he had no idea what he'd bought in 1985, no clue as to its real value, and more homespun golly-gee stuff of that nature, at odds with the sophisticated version of the adventure (frankly, bordering on Dan Brown territory) as found in the official materials.
“This limited run of bronze castings are derived from the only known surviving sculpture by Leonardo da Vinci.” The key word in that sentence is, of course, “derived.” What's happening now is that Art Encounters has engaged Burbank's American Fine Arts Foundry to produce four variations on the sculpture using Mr. Lewis' mold, totaling 996 pieces in all. Leonardo Classic (299 castings) “most closely resembles the beeswax original at the time it was sculpted by Leonardo da Vinci.” Classic Bronze (299 castings) “resembles what Leonardo's finished vision of 'Horse and Rider' would look like had he cast it in bronze.” Okay. Verde (299 castings) is “a realistic vision of what Leonardo's finished bronze would look like after 500 years.” In other words, it's turned green. And finally, Silver (only 99 castings) is “a unique offering for discerning collectors; this is the only casting finished in precious metal.” Discerning. I see.
Oh, it's also important to note that the beeswax was authenticated by Renaissance scholar Professor Carlo Pedretti of UCLA, the world's leading Leonardo da Vinci expert and the man who first dubbed the one-of-a-kind sculpture Horse and Rider back in 1985, and suddenly and without warning moved back to Italy just two months ago, as the piece was being released. Coincidence? Probably so. But in the context of this art-historical fuzziness, one can't help thinking it a bit fishy.
So at this point, it's hard not to think “scam” but in fairness it's actually more complicated than that. The funny thing is, the plain truth would have been fine — it's the semantic gymnastics of terms like “derived” and “discovered” that gave the proceedings an air of spin that wasn't really warranted. The real truth is much more interesting! Who would ever have thought that a bit of wax from 1519 would open a can of very modern worms having to do with exactly the same issues of authorship, originality, copyright, and authenticity that plague our digital and Internet-based culture at the dawn of the 21st century? Maybe only the visionary mind of the Master himself. And Dan Brown.