The Leftists Who See Trump’s Face in a Da Vinci

Two years into the Trump administration, there is now a hard and fast rule for any news outlet hoping to make a story go viral: make it salacious and stick Trump’s name in the title. BuzzFeed helped pioneer this strategy with Christopher Steele’s “dodgy dossier.” The site was still at it days before laying off most of its news desk, with a bombshell story about the President instructing Michael Cohen to lie to Congress. Unfortunately for BuzzFeed, the bombshell turned out to be such a dud that Robert Mueller’s office publicly repudiated it

That hasn’t scared off other sites from trying to ride the coattails of the Trump media renaissance. At least one has gone back to the actual Renaissance to come up with clickbait stories for the #Resistance. Narativ, a once-unknown Trump-Russia blog, rolled out an elaborate narrative in early January involving Trump, Russian potash magnate Dmitry Rybolovlev, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and a Leonardo da Vinci painting that sold for a record $450 million in 2017.

What, you may ask, links the president to the most expensive painting in the world? How has a painter who died over 500 years ago managed to join the pantheon of anti-Trump myths? The story spun by Narativ, which was subsequently picked up by more “respectable” outlets like Vanity Fair, is riveting and larger than life. Too large, in fact, to fit within the confines of reality.

Even without Trump, the real story behind Salvator Mundi is remarkable. The last Leonardo masterpiece in private hands, it was uncovered by art dealer Robert Simon at an estate sale in Louisiana in 2005. Simon paid less than $10,000 for the disfigured painting and entrusted it to conservator Dianne Modestini for years of restoration work. When Simon and partners Warren Adelson and Alexander Parish then struggled to find a museum purchaser, they were approached by Sotheby's with a potential buyer: Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier, acting on behalf of Dmitry Rybolovlev.

Bouvier’s handling of the purchase for Rybolovlev marks the next chapter. The Swiss dealer, nicknamed the “Freeport King,” is accused of secretly buying art himself and reselling them to the Russian at ridiculously high markups. In the case of Salvator Mundi, Bouvier paid $80 million and then billed Rybolovev $127.5 million, allegedly with an assist from Sotheby’s chairman of private sales Samuel Valette. Sotheby’s and Bouvier worked together on fourteen art sales to the Russian billionaire, who is now suing Bouvier for $1 billion and Sotheby’s for $380 million in damages for fraud.

While Rybolovlev is still going after Bouvier and Sotheby’s, he no longer owns Salvator Mundi. In November 2017, Christie’s played host to a dramatic 19-minute-long bidding war between two anonymous bidders for the painting, culminating in its sale for just over $450 million, the highest ever price for a work of art.

The Leonardo’s new owner was later identified by the New York Times as Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud, with the actual purchaser quite possibly Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The now world-famous Leonardo was supposed to go on display at the Louvre Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, but Abu Dhabi indefinitely postponed the exhibition last September. The painting hasn’t been seen since.

Narativ took one look at this story and decided that the riveting tale was missing just one element: Donald Trump. The only solid connection between the painting and the president is Rybolovlev, who purchased a Florida mansion from the President for $95 million back in 2008. In Narativ’s version of events, however, things got much crazier.

According to the blog, Rybolovlev put Salvator Mundi up for auction, knowing the Saudis and the Emiratis would bid for it. It claims the record proceeds were funneled to an Israeli social media firm called Psy-Group, which has come under investigation by Robert Mueller for its involvement with the 2016 campaign. In short, Narativ is claiming the Leonardo painting acted as a vehicle to launder $300 million from Saudi Arabia’s crown prince to an Israeli company that supposedly manipulated the public to elect Trump president.

With the story getting picked up on more serious outlets, no less than Vox came forward with a thorough rebuttal. Not that Vox needed to put much effort into their story, with the art world laughing Narativ’s yarn out of court.

Georgina Adam, editor at large of the Art Newspaper, told the site: “I thought from the very beginning that it was completely bonkers. Would you launder money in public?” Ben Davis, the national art critic for Artnet News, was even more scathing: “If you’re going to do something really, really shady, you might not want to do it in a way that’s designed to put a big arrow over your head that says, ‘Look at me! Investigate me!”

Adam also took the time to dispel one of the key points in Narativ’s tall tale: Salvator Mundi’s supposed disappearance: “It’s not lost; we know where it is. We believe it’s in storage in Geneva.” The painting might very well be in one of Switzerland’s notorious freeports, used by art dealers such as Bouvier to stow precious artwork out of public view. That sector of the art world is incredibly opaque, and Bouvier has been investigated by authorities in the U.S., Monaco, France, and Switzerland.

While Narativ’s story invents a conspiracy out of thin air, the fake news has unfortunately already reaped the benefits its authors were probably hoping for. The story has been pushed out to tens of thousands of people on Facebook and Twitter, by Russiagate grifters like Seth Abramson but also real journalists including Stephanie Ruhle and Linette Lopez. Its success comes as just the latest proof of concept for a strategy that has saved the media: stick Trump’s name in a story and it’s sure to sell.

Two years into the Trump administration, there is now a hard and fast rule for any news outlet hoping to make a story go viral: make it salacious and stick Trump’s name in the title. BuzzFeed helped pioneer this strategy with Christopher Steele’s “dodgy dossier.” The site was still at it days before laying off most of its news desk, with a bombshell story about the President instructing Michael Cohen to lie to Congress. Unfortunately for BuzzFeed, the bombshell turned out to be such a dud that Robert Mueller’s office publicly repudiated it

That hasn’t scared off other sites from trying to ride the coattails of the Trump media renaissance. At least one has gone back to the actual Renaissance to come up with clickbait stories for the #Resistance. Narativ, a once-unknown Trump-Russia blog, rolled out an elaborate narrative in early January involving Trump, Russian potash magnate Dmitry Rybolovlev, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and a Leonardo da Vinci painting that sold for a record $450 million in 2017.

What, you may ask, links the president to the most expensive painting in the world? How has a painter who died over 500 years ago managed to join the pantheon of anti-Trump myths? The story spun by Narativ, which was subsequently picked up by more “respectable” outlets like Vanity Fair, is riveting and larger than life. Too large, in fact, to fit within the confines of reality.

Even without Trump, the real story behind Salvator Mundi is remarkable. The last Leonardo masterpiece in private hands, it was uncovered by art dealer Robert Simon at an estate sale in Louisiana in 2005. Simon paid less than $10,000 for the disfigured painting and entrusted it to conservator Dianne Modestini for years of restoration work. When Simon and partners Warren Adelson and Alexander Parish then struggled to find a museum purchaser, they were approached by Sotheby's with a potential buyer: Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier, acting on behalf of Dmitry Rybolovlev.

Bouvier’s handling of the purchase for Rybolovlev marks the next chapter. The Swiss dealer, nicknamed the “Freeport King,” is accused of secretly buying art himself and reselling them to the Russian at ridiculously high markups. In the case of Salvator Mundi, Bouvier paid $80 million and then billed Rybolovev $127.5 million, allegedly with an assist from Sotheby’s chairman of private sales Samuel Valette. Sotheby’s and Bouvier worked together on fourteen art sales to the Russian billionaire, who is now suing Bouvier for $1 billion and Sotheby’s for $380 million in damages for fraud.

While Rybolovlev is still going after Bouvier and Sotheby’s, he no longer owns Salvator Mundi. In November 2017, Christie’s played host to a dramatic 19-minute-long bidding war between two anonymous bidders for the painting, culminating in its sale for just over $450 million, the highest ever price for a work of art.

The Leonardo’s new owner was later identified by the New York Times as Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud, with the actual purchaser quite possibly Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The now world-famous Leonardo was supposed to go on display at the Louvre Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, but Abu Dhabi indefinitely postponed the exhibition last September. The painting hasn’t been seen since.

Narativ took one look at this story and decided that the riveting tale was missing just one element: Donald Trump. The only solid connection between the painting and the president is Rybolovlev, who purchased a Florida mansion from the President for $95 million back in 2008. In Narativ’s version of events, however, things got much crazier.

According to the blog, Rybolovlev put Salvator Mundi up for auction, knowing the Saudis and the Emiratis would bid for it. It claims the record proceeds were funneled to an Israeli social media firm called Psy-Group, which has come under investigation by Robert Mueller for its involvement with the 2016 campaign. In short, Narativ is claiming the Leonardo painting acted as a vehicle to launder $300 million from Saudi Arabia’s crown prince to an Israeli company that supposedly manipulated the public to elect Trump president.

With the story getting picked up on more serious outlets, no less than Vox came forward with a thorough rebuttal. Not that Vox needed to put much effort into their story, with the art world laughing Narativ’s yarn out of court.

Georgina Adam, editor at large of the Art Newspaper, told the site: “I thought from the very beginning that it was completely bonkers. Would you launder money in public?” Ben Davis, the national art critic for Artnet News, was even more scathing: “If you’re going to do something really, really shady, you might not want to do it in a way that’s designed to put a big arrow over your head that says, ‘Look at me! Investigate me!”

Adam also took the time to dispel one of the key points in Narativ’s tall tale: Salvator Mundi’s supposed disappearance: “It’s not lost; we know where it is. We believe it’s in storage in Geneva.” The painting might very well be in one of Switzerland’s notorious freeports, used by art dealers such as Bouvier to stow precious artwork out of public view. That sector of the art world is incredibly opaque, and Bouvier has been investigated by authorities in the U.S., Monaco, France, and Switzerland.

While Narativ’s story invents a conspiracy out of thin air, the fake news has unfortunately already reaped the benefits its authors were probably hoping for. The story has been pushed out to tens of thousands of people on Facebook and Twitter, by Russiagate grifters like Seth Abramson but also real journalists including Stephanie Ruhle and Linette Lopez. Its success comes as just the latest proof of concept for a strategy that has saved the media: stick Trump’s name in a story and it’s sure to sell.