I have no idea what I was occupied with at the time, but I somehow entirely missed (or have since entirely forgotten) the news of a painting suspected to be from the hand of Leonardo da Vinci selling for $450 million in late 2017, a world record for any piece of art, ever. According to the new documentary The Lost Leonardo (directed by Andreas Koefoed), it was, understandably, massive news at the time and the culmination of the painting’s twisting, turning journey from its rediscovery in 2005 at a small New Orleans art auction (where a couple dealers picked it up for about $1,000). Called Salvatore Mundi (or Savior of the World), the painting is an ethereal depiction of a long-haired, fair-skinned Jesus, a relatively young man with a look so beguiling it’s often been called “the male Mona Lisa.”
Tracing the painting’s journey over those years becomes a riveting affair as Koefoed interviews everyone from the restoration specialist who first suspected the painting’s origins to the European dealer who pulls a fast one at the height of the painting’s popularity, practically doubling its price overnight. There are investigative journalists, former CIA agents, art critics and more, all contributing their two cents on both the painting’s incredible journey and its destiny since the big sale. In the end, whether the painting is or isn’t by da Vinci himself is practically besides the point, as the film zooms out to the far reaches of the globe and the much broader implications the sale has on art and politics as a whole.
Though he’s one of the most revered creators in history, only a dozen or so paintings exist today from da Vinci’s hand; the rest are all by assistants and apprentices, copies of the master’s original work. This fact alone makes the presumption of “discovering” another work by him something of a miracle; this particular revelation all began when art dealers Alexander Parrish and Robert Simon commissioned a restoration by Dianne Modestini, a seemingly mild-mannered woman with a wisp of a voice who, in her years of painstakingly detailed work on the painting determined it to be the genuine article. The central piece of evidence for her claim is what’s called a “pentimento,” or an instance on a painting where the artist clearly changed their mind on an element of the subject. In this case, Modestini discovered that the hand of Jesus depicted blessing the viewer had been changed—the thumb had been upright, and in the final painting appears more bent toward the other two outstretched fingers. All the copies that exist of Salvatore Mundi show the thumb in the second position, indicating that this pentimento is original and therefore from da Vinci himself.
Throughout the film, Modestini is convinced of her assessment and becomes increasingly exasperated as the painting’s destiny leads it further and further from her purview. Though she seems resigned to the fact that there isn’t much she can do once it enters the realm of major art dealers and the massive economy at work behind international auctions and globally renowned museums, she’s often like a mother bear protective of her baby cub, frustrated and defensive about how the painting is received in the world. Koefoed skillfully balances Modestini’s take on the whole affair with factual recountings from journalists who watched it all unfold, their narrative guiding us through the years-long saga. And then, of course, there’s the naysayers, those who aren’t convinced of the painting’s provenance and have no interest in being converted. Taken together, it’s quite the indictment of the art world, that such a frenzy could arise out of something no one can be really, truly certain about.
If, like me, you were somehow oblivious to or have forgotten about all the hysteria, The Lost Leonardo plays like something of an art caper, a mystery shrouded around not only how the painting ended up on the auction block at Christie’s that fateful day in 2017 but also where it is today and in which museum it will be seen next. Pay particular attention to a late-film sequence about the Louvre’s plan to display it as part of an overall exhibition on da Vinci and Modestini’s eye-popping discovery connected to it. Though The Lost Leonardo chronicles Salvatore Mundi’s rollercoaster journey thus far, there’s a lot more to this story that’s yet to be told.
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