The world of high-priced art, including auctions, art theft, and forgeries has captured the public’s attention over the last decade. Several popular documentaries and dramas have covered art-related themes. One of the latest is The Lost Leonardo, a documentary about a painting called Salvator Mundi, which may or may not be a recently discovered masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci, the most famous Renaissance artist best known for the Mona Lisa.
When I turned on The Lost Leonardo, written and directed by Danish director Andreas Koefoed, I wasn’t clear if it was a drama or documentary and I suspect this vagueness is deliberate as more viewers might be likely to tune into a mystery drama about the art world. Although it is compelling, it is a doc after all, with interviews of art experts, dealers, and investors.
A minor spoiler alert is that, after watching The Lost Leonardo, you still won’t know whether or not the painting is authentic. Experts still debate the matter. Authenticity is what drives value but in so many cases, items are difficult to authenticate. As dealers and appraisers explain, provenance, the traceable lineage of ownership, is a key factor for authenticating art. With Salvator Mundi, the painting’s history can only be traced back to recent times, the first few hundred years of its existence remaining a complete mystery so far.
Restoration or Forgery?
The Lost Leonardo involves many characters who may or may not be trustworthy. Dianne Modestini is the restorer who first declared that Salvator Mundi was indeed painted by Leonardo da Vinci. However, others have accused Modestini of doing more than just restoring the painting, saying that she essentially took a work from a minor artist who was a mere Leonardo follower and forged it to make it look like Leonardo’s original work.
A Rivalry Between Billionaires
Another side plot is the bizarre rivalry between two billionaires, Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier, and Russian “oligarch” (for some reason, only Russians are described as oligarchs) Dmitry Rybolovlev. Bouvier acquired the painting, was less than transparent about how he acquired it and how much he paid, and sold it to Rybolovlev, taking a profit of many millions. While this practice is fairly common in many deals, from real estate to any type of collectible or antique, Rybolovlev was outraged and launched a global campaign against Bouvier. This is all fairly silly and sheds more light on the greed and egotism of the ultra-wealthy than it does on Renaissance art, but it’s all part of the world of the high end art market. Alexandra Bregman, who is interviewed in the film, has written a book called The Bouvier Affair: A True Story, that goes into more detail about this conflict.
The Painting is Acquired by a Saudi Prince
Salvator Mundi ended up being purchased at Christy’s for a record high price of $450 million by Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Louvre negotiated with him to display it at a large Leonardo exhibit, but the negotiations fell apart. As the film explains, the Saudis wanted Salvator Mundi displayed next to the Mona Lisa to dispel any controversy about its authenticity. The Louvre apparently refused and the painting hasn’t been publicly seen since.
Art: What is Authentic?
Aside from being of interest to art lovers and art historians, The Lost Leonardo raises some interesting questions about how we value art. After all, it’s the same painting, no matter who actually created it 500 or so years ago. Of course, the same can be said for any work of art or collectible. Whether it’s a painting or a celebrity’s signature, we want an assurance that the item we’re buying or just admiring is “real.” If you love and admire a work of art for years and then find out that it’s “fake,” do you suddenly stop appreciating it? If so, does this mean that abstract issues are more important than the sensual experience of viewing the work? Difficult questions to answer, highlighting the uneasy relationship between art and reality.
The Lost Leonardo is currently streaming on multiple sites, including Amazon Prime, Hulu, and YouTube.