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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
There have been several recent films about the pressures dictating prices on the international art market, but none have been as instructive – or as enthralling – as The Lost Leonardo. The story begins in the stockroom of an obscure New Orleans auction house and travels across the globe. As it goes, the painting at its centre grows in value – from $US1175 to $US450 million.
Known as Salvator Mundi (Saviour of the World) it was unearthed in New Orleans in 2008 by Alexander Parish, a “sleeper hunter”, on the lookout for undervalued works of art. He took it to his dealer, who engaged Dianne Modestini, a respected New York restorer, to examine the painting and clean it up. After careful analysis, she felt ready to endorse it as an authentic Leonardo da Vinci. This decision was to plunge her into a controversy for the ensuing 13 years.
A less talented director might have unfolded the story as a series of talking heads noisily at war with one another, but Denmark’s Andreas Koefoed has shaped a narrative which doubles as an absorbing detective story and a provocative dissection of the delicate business of art attribution. Once the authentication caravan begins to roll and money and power take over. The first milestone comes in 2011 when the National Gallery in London included the painting in its blockbuster Da Vinci exhibition without getting formal opinions from the experts. Two years later, it sold for $US127.5 million to a Russian oligarch by a Swiss dealer and it goes on from there. Inevitably, an element of show business enters the picture as competing experts heatedly offer up their views. New York critic Jerry Schatz, for instance, should be convicted on aesthetic grounds for over-acting, such is the level of indignation he achieves in denouncing the painting.
Perhaps the saga’s biggest loser is the poignant figure of Modestini whose meticulous work on the painting’s restoration only served to damage her reputation in the eyes of its detractors. But the final irony lies in the fact that the painting now languishes, hidden from public view in the collection of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who bought it in 2017.