When Christie’s auction house put the painting “Salvator Mundi” on display in London in 2017, it released a promotional video. The video did not show the much-buzzed-about painting of Jesus, but instead focused on the faces of people gazing at what was presented as Leonardo da Vinci’s lost masterpiece — joyful, teary-eyed, awestruck.
It was a brilliant and telling campaign, because what was being advertised wasn’t really the painting itself. It was us — the emotions and reactions that the painting stirred up, the value that we put upon it. That the painting may not have really been a da Vinci was beside the point. Those people in the video, and so many more, needed to believe that it was.
Andreas Koefoed’s documentary “The Lost Leonardo” digs into the intersection between art and commerce, between aesthetic value and monetary value, in telling the story of the “Salvator Mundi," the most expensive painting in the world, and the mysteries surrounding it. Koefoed structures the film like a twisty thriller, full of unexpected turns and larger-than-life characters. Watching it, it’s impossible not to cast the Hollywood version of this story in your mind.
I see Paul Giamatti playing Alexander Parish, the art dealer and self-described “sleeper hunter” who hunts for underappreciated finds at estate sales and auctions. He finds the “Salvator Mundi” at an auction in New Orleans and buys it for a mere $1,175. It’s in terrible shape, but he thinks it might be an original by one of the many artists who lived in da Vinci’s orbit and copied his work, which would still be worth some money. He brings it to a friend, and as they appraise it they have a growing suspicion that it may be a da Vinci.
The film is entertaining and unexpectedly emotional, mixing footage of free solo climber Marc-Andre Leclerc scaling impossible heights with a psychological exploration of what attracts people to such dangerous situations again and again.
They bring it to a conservator, Dianne Modestini, who lovingly restores the painting to its former glory after centuries of neglect. But here lies one of the many controversies around the painting. Modestini did such extensive work on it that some wondered if she crossed the line between restoring and recreating.
From there, Koefoed follows the journey the painting took around the world, changing hands from Russian oligarchs to Saudi princes, skyrocketing in value to an astonishing $450 million. There’s a fascinating subplot involving an enigmatic Swiss banker, Yves Bouvier, and his role in inflating the price of the painting and pocketing his cut. (I picture Christoph Waltz playing him.)
Are these buyers and sellers all art lovers? Hardly. The Russian tycoon is trying to hide his assets by sinking them into the painting; the Saudi prince is trying to buy respectability with the Western world. Those questions of authenticity dog the painting every step of the way. But the painting is ultimately worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it.
It’s a wild story, and a very complicated one, and Koefoed does an excellent job guiding the viewer through the twists and turns in the art world to the financial world and back again. It may leave the audience feeling a little more cynical about the world of modern art, but, perhaps paradoxically, if the "Salvator Mundi" was ever on display near me, I would still go see it.
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