Documentary, investigation, sting movie and worldwide phenomenon: The Savior for Sale : The Story of The Salvator Mundi is at the crossroads of genres, something which has contributed to making it a rapid and international success. Taking a behind-the-scenes look at the art world and specifically the work that is thought to be the last of master painter Leonardo Da Vinci, this extraordinary film takes a deep dive into the art of turning a painting sale into a worldwide debate.  

Interview with Olivier Barbier, VP Acquisitions and International Sales at MK2 Films and Antoine Vitkine, director

The Interview

TV France: The documentary The Savior for Sale : The Story of The Salvator Mundi was a clear success when it was broadcast on France 5on April 13.  How do you explain the success of a documentary at the crossroads between current affairs, history and art?

Olivier Barbier

Olivier Barbier: Firstly, the story the film tells is completely crazy, it’s extraordinary! We’re talking about what’s supposed to be the last painting of Da Vinci, the existence of which we barely believed in. It was found and bought for less than $2,000 a few years ago and, in 2017, it became the biggest sale in the history of art when it was bought for more than $450 million, before its authenticity had even been decided upon.

The mix of genres is one of the keys to understanding the film’s success. First of all, we have the world’s most famous artist, Leonardo Da Vinci, a man who continues to fascinate. You just have to look at how many people went to the Da Vinci exhibition at the Louvre in 2019 – it received more than a million visitors – that’s a record. The man is practically a piece of intellectual property, a brand in his own right!

Through this recently discovered work, the Salvator Mundi, we dive into the art world with its mysterious way of working and inaccessibility that intrigues people. The documentary exposes its secrets and machinations, highlighting the mechanisms that enable these astronomical sales – in this case – $450 million, something which had never been seen before. We’re almost in the realms of a scam or sting film, a genre that is still very fashionable, even within the documentary sector, with characters that would not be out of place in a Guy Ritchie film.  

We also talk about a wider subject – globalization – as this painting is at the center of power and money games with players in every corner of the world. This leads to reflection about the modern world, where the value of things no longer has a common measure and is no longer based on that essential element – their authenticity.  

The question of authenticity runs throughout the film: beyond its historical interest, the film shows that the question actually has major geopolitical stakes. The worldwide repercussions of the relatively innocent question, “Is it a real Da Vinci?” are incredible.  

TV France: As well as its success with viewers, the press really got on board with the documentary. In your opinion, why was there such enthusiasm?

Olivier Barbier : The press played an integral role in the success of the documentary among the French public, and the conditions are in place for that to be the case in others countries too. The Salvator Mundi is a fascinating work of art, and its adventures were well documented in the press, well before the documentary was made. And we’re not just talking about specialized press, but general interest media too, as it is a wide-reaching subject that interests many people.

On this basis, the documentary brought in new content, with striking revelations arising from the investigations made by the director that call into question the painting’s authenticity. The press jumped on this scoop, which raised the film’s profile internationally and put that debate back at the heart of conversations about the piece. The press created a real discussion about the painting’s authenticity and the Louvre’s expertise after the film was broadcast, and we can expect that to continue in weeks to come. 

TV France: The documentary is as much about a search for the truth as a polemical work. Why and how did you conduct your own investigation? 

Antoine Vitkine. Photo ©Benjamin Boccas

Antoine Vitkine: I became interested in the Salvator Mundi in 2019 while I was filming a profile of Mohammed Ben Salmane (known as MBS, Saudi Arabian prince and the painting’s owner). I immediately felt that there was an extraordinary story with ramifications that extended beyond the art market. I had no theory to present, I just wanted to describe that world, understand the system, and leave the viewers free to interpret and react as they wish. To do that, I had to be as factual as possible. The investigation that began in the spring of 2019 immediately took on sizeable proportions; I had to understand the ins and outs of each stage in the history of the painting, penetrate a relatively closed shop, and convince various people to talk to me and give me their versions of the story. During that time, everyone was waiting to see whether the Louvre would include the painting in the October 2019 Da Vinci exhibition, and if so, how.  After the painting didn’t make it into the exhibition, the second stage of my investigation began as I tried to understand why it had not been included. It was a totally taboo subject that no journalist had yet explored, and I found myself coming up against a wall of silence, a well-guarded secret. I quickly understood the stakes and the reasons: the relationship with Saudi Arabia and its leader MBS. After a certain time, several state sources were able to reveal to me what had happened. I discovered that the Salvator Mundi had been sent to the Louvre in agreement with MBS, and that the museum, supported by the Élysée (the office of the French President), refused to exhibit it in accordance with the Saudi Arabian’s conditions – the reasons for which are explained in the film. This was quite extraordinary. That a head of state was obliged to intervene in a scientific debate about a Renaissance painting shows the incredible proportions this saga took on.  And that raised the profile of my film even further and reopened the artistic debate about the painting, which has raged for a decade now and is still not over.  

TV France: You are taking this documentary to the international stage – what made you decide to acquire the rights?

Olivier Barbier : We started discussing the project very early on with the producers and director of the film, long before filming finished. We acquired the rights for the same reasons that it has been such a success. Da Vinci is an artist that transcends the ages and has never left the spotlight (exhibitions, films, books). The film’s format was also attractive: an international investigation, at the crossroads of genres, structured like a scam or sting film: it had all the right ingredients to attract an international viewership! We also have to remember that the painting crossed oceans and countries before coming to “rest” where it is today.  The film starts in the USA and ends up halfway between Paris and Saudi Arabia, passing through London, Russia and Singapore on the way.  This voyage into a world that is both unregulated and globalized is obviously a huge asset on the international scene. At mk2, we think it is important to present films – whether documentary or fiction – that offer new voices that are modern and different. The film completely meets all these criteria.

TV France: The Savior for Sale : The Story of The Salvator Mundi was launched at the Unifrance Rendez-Vous and then in Berlin…. What initial feedback have you had from international buyers?

Olivier Barbier : The launch happened in two phases. We started by including the film in our line-up for the Unifrance Rendez-Vous and pitching it to our usual customers. We quickly saw that they were interested – and that interest was confirmed during Berlin online, during which we presented a teaser for the film. What’s particular is that interest shown, and then the offers made, came and are still coming from various different media: TV channels and streaming platforms, but especially from all-rights distributors, which has had a real impact on sales of the film given the current context.  

France Télévision’s rapid broadcast led us to show the film very quickly to buyers after Berlin, even before its first festival, which will take place by the beginning of the summer. Feedback is enthusiastic and we are working on generating sales.

TV France: A recent launch and already lots of sales!

Olivier Barbier : We were sure that buyers would be interested but the speed with which they made their decisions was a pleasant surprise in the current context. We have already sealed a large number of sales deals in a lot of major countries, notably in Europe and Asia (Germany, Italy, Spain, Scandinavia, Switzerland, Russia, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea). We are in advanced talks with English-speaking buyers – notably in the USA, Australia and Latin America – which will soon lead us to cover almost the entire world combining all-rights distributors, channels and platforms.