The art world has long proved fertile ground for non-fiction cinema. However, as documentaries such as Benjamin Ree’s The Painter and the Thief, Nathaniel Kahn’s The Price Of Everything and Zachary Heinzerling’s Cutie and the Boxer show, these films are often about far more than the placement of paint on a canvas.
Joining their ranks, The Lost Leonardo is also about much, much more than just a painting. Director Andreas Koefoed’s gripping and thought provoking documentary explores the incredible story behind the most expensive painting ever sold. In 2017, the Salvator Mundi (Latin for ‘Saviour of the World’) was purchased during a dramatic auction at Christie’s in New York for over $450 million. The reason why this painting fetched such an astronomical sum? It was thought that the piece had been painted by Leonardo da Vinci himself.
A few years before, the Salvator Mundi had been rediscovered at a New Orleans auction house and purchased for $1175. Badly damaged, it was then restored by Dianne Modestini - a renowned expert in her field. As she worked, Modestini began to believe that “no one could have painted this except Leonardo”.
However, by this stage, we have already been primed to feel wary. At the start of Koefoed’s film we hear that “everybody wanted it to be a Leonardo and so everybody took the most optimistic view they could of it as a Leonardo and perhaps it is a Leonardo.” Meanwhile, Evan Beard, global art services executive at Bank of America, describes what happened next as “the most improbable story that has, I think, ever happened in the art market”.
In an insatiable quest for fame and power, the true story about the origins of the Salvator Mundi - referred to by some as the ‘male Mona Lisa’ - became secondary, irrelevant. In the Old Masters space, Koefoed informs us, opinions matter more than facts and money rules all. “This is simply a matter of economics - when you boil down to it - and greed,” art critic and collector, Kenny Schachter, tells us in the film. “Basic human foibles. Money.”
Filmed over three years, The Lost Leonardo takes us on a breathtaking journey behind the scenes of the art world. We see art hunters, restorers, dealers and auction houses at work and begin to understand their motivations. It is both fascinating and unsettling.
As we travel around the globe, we sense the loss of the emotional value of art. In its place are a series of cold, financially motivated decisions. Art at this level is, we learn, a commercial game. It is not about beauty or love, it is about transferring funds. It is not art history, it is world politics.
For example, Koefoed’s documentary examines the moment, in 2008, when many of the world’s most distinguished Leonardo Da Vinci experts gathered around an easel at the National Gallery in London to examine the Salvator Mundi. The National Gallery, however, did not seek further experts’ formal opinions, before presenting the piece as an autograph1 Leonardo da Vinci painting in its 2011 exhibition.
The phenomenal success of the exhibition tells you all you need to know about why the National Gallery did what it did. Time and time again in The Lost Leonardo we hear that it matters more what the art world wants the Salvator Mundi to be than what it actually is - the myth is far more powerful than the reality.
“This is a film about the incredible journey of a painting,” says Koefoed. “It is a true story, yet a fairytale worthy of H.C. Andersen: A damaged painting, neglected for centuries, is fortuitously rediscovered and soon after praised as a long-lost masterpiece of divine beauty. At its peak in the spotlight, it is decried as a fake, but what is revealed most of all is that the world around it is fake, driven by cynical powers and money.”
For his part, Kenny Schachter is having none of this fairytale. “It’s not even a good painting!” he exclaims in the film. However, as Dianne Modestini concludes, “no one even cares what the truth is.”