The incredible true story of the Salvator Mundi, a supposed Renaissance masterpiece by Leonardo DaVinci, is a tale that’s stranger than fiction. In “The Lost Leonardo,” director Andreas Koefoed goes in-depth to expose the speculation, mystery, and legend that follows what is widely considered one of the world’s most controversial paintings. There’s so much mystery surrounding this work of art that nobody can, with any degree of certainty, proclaim its authenticity. The documentary catalogs how a $1,175 purchase of a painting by speculators at a questionable New Orleans auction house in 2005 set in motion a worldwide frenzy in the art world that’s still being talked about to this day.
Part thriller and part art history lesson, the first part of the film plays a bit dry, introducing talking head experts from the art world. There are lots of discussions about the intricacies of restoration techniques and brushstroke methods that may lose casual viewers. But hang on for a bit longer and you’ll discover a thriller that exposes the power of the world’s richest men, the calculated shrewdness of famed art institutions, and a story of human greed that’s unlike any other.
The Salvator Mundi is the most expensive painting ever sold, at a whopping price tag of $450 million. The buyer (which only recently was discovered to be the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman), has yet to put the item on public display. All of this adds to the mystique of the artwork, but not quieting questions about the painting’s authenticity. There’s a great deal of time spent on a back-and-forth, “is-it-or-isn’t-it?” debate about whether or not the artwork was really painted by DaVinci. One expert cautions about the danger of expectations, which almost always cause a person to see what they want to see instead of the reality.
Over the years, opinions about the painting have been presented as facts, and vice versa. Who’s to blame for a lot of this? According to the documentary, secretive power players whose desire to acquire the unobtainable is more important than the truth, the marketing department at Christie’s who paraded the painting as a rare trophy and coined it “the male Mona Lisa,” and the members of the artistic community who saw the work early on but neglected to express their concerns about its authenticity before things snowballed.
Koefoed raises some thought-provoking themes about the art world, exposing the unregulated, shady deals that comprise a large part of how it operates. Many of the world’s most affluent people (and countries) use art as political capital, as a smokescreen for money laundering, or shell out big bucks as a way to protect their monetary assets. An item is worth what someone will pay, but being greedy isn’t a crime.
The film’s early focus is on the creative process of the art itself, featuring interviews with prominent art critics, scholars, restorers, historians, dealers, brokers, writers, museum curators, private collectors, and an appearance from the FBI’s Art Crimes division. Turns out the painting’s $450 million purchase price also attracted the attention of the CIA. Even after all of this, the story’s delicious twists and turns are still just getting started. There are accusations of fraud, intuitive uneasiness from investigative journalists, and some truly bizarre behavior from the representatives at the Louvre.
The truth behind the Salvator Mundi is one of the greatest mysteries to ever hit the art world, and “The Lost Leonardo” continues to raise questions about the work’s provenance and authenticity.