Ten years ago, the National Gallery in London exhibited a heavily restored Salvator Mundi, allegedly painted by Leonardo da Vinci, the attribution of which is fiercely contested. Tracing the painting from discovery to its eventual record-breaking private sale, documentarian Andreas Koefoed’s latest is about how art can become a vector for vanity, status and raw power.
For anyone hoping for the film to offer any kind of definitive answer to the question of the Salvator Mundi’s origins, The Lost Leonardo is likely to disappoint. This is not an investigative documentary and Koefoed sensibly works around the question that has caught up his subjects in obsession. Indeed, The Lost Leonardo is not really about a painting at all; the meaning of the painting – whether it is by the Renaissance master or not – is of secondary concern to the film and apparently entirely superfluous to both its sceptics and the figures that profess absolute faith in its provenance. The art critic Jerry Saltz – the film’s most forthright sceptical voice as well its most amusingly obnoxious – says that the Leonardo or not, Salvator Mundi is not even a good painting.
No, The Lost Leonardo is about obsession, ego, power and greed. For almost all of the film’s characters, Salvator Mundi represents nothing more than opportunity. For some it is increased status in the art world, for others it is the vain satisfaction in being the one who has discovered a lost treasure; for all of them it is about converting that opportunity into capital, whether it be cultural, financial or even political.
A few figures do emerge with some semblance of sincerity. Diane Modestini, who believes that the work is a true Leonardo, restored the heavily damaged the painting and is one of only two figures who appears to have an actual appreciation of the painting. A question marks hangs over how much, if anything, she expected to profit from its restoration and eventual sale, but she is consistent in her regret that it did not end up in a public gallery. Elsewhere, art scholar Martin Kemp is assured that the painting is authentic, while apparently standing to gain little from the declaration other than perhaps the waning status of having an opinion of the thing.
The film first shows its hand after the painting is acquired by a Russian oligarch through a deal with shady businessman Yves Bouvier. This is where the mask that the acquisition of valuable art is about anything other than power finally drops. Converting liquid cash into physical objects, billionaires’ vast fortunes can be hidden safely from tax authorities in Bouvier’s vast freeport. They can then be reconverted into cash or other forms of capital when needed, such as the painting’s eventual sale for $450m in 2017, allegedly to Saudi leader Mohammed Bin Salman. The painting’s authenticity would be question if only it still mattered. There are conflicting accounts over the reason that the Louvre, which sought to loan the painting, didn’t display it during their famous da Vinci exhibition, though the one that prevails here is that MBS insisted that it be displayed next to the Mona Lisa, while the Louvre refused. It is a truly fascinating and cynical display of political power by proxy, but at this stage no one is surely under any illusions that it was ever about the art.