It’s a simple painting, quiet and inauspicious. The figure at its center stares ahead from a void of darkness, his pale skin shining from the shadows like a beacon as his brown hair falls in delicate curls upon his blue dress. His face is calm yet inscrutable, staring calmly at the viewer as his right hand makes the sign of the cross. In his left sits a transparent crystal orb within which, it is understood, all the cosmos are contained. Those in the know label this painting a “Salvator Mundi,” a frequent motif in Renaissance-era art wherein Jesus Christ—inevitably whitened and enriched beyond his historical station as an itinerant Palestinian rabbi—is depicted as holding the Earth, and all of creation itself, in his hand. There are countless “Salvator Mundi” paintings, many by esteemed masters. But this one is different. This, it is said, is not just a “Salvator Mundi” by a master, but the “Salvator Mundi” by the master. For this is the painting believed to be painted by none other than Leonardo da Vinci himself.
That is, of course, if the painting is authentic. Assumed to have been lost a century after its creation, it was spotted by an eagle-eyed art dealer in a New Orleans auction house where it was assumed to be the work of one of da Vinci’s students. But during the restoration process it was declared to be from the hand of the master himself, sparking one of the most controversial sagas in modern art history as its price ballooned from a few thousand dollars in 2005 to nearly half a billion when it was sold at auction in 2017. In the interim, this simple, quiet, and inauspicious painting would become a cause célèbre among art collectors and a cause maudit among art critics and historians. It would change hands from shady Swiss dealers to shadier Russian billionaires to mercurial and murderous Saudi princes. This stunning history has been captured and condensed for all to see in Andreas Koefoed’s brilliant and disturbing documentary The Lost Leonardo.
Over my career as a critic, I have reviewed more documentaries about the art world and those who navigate it than I care to count or remember. But this is perhaps the only one that properly captures the sense of dread, corruption, and duplicity that lurks at its heart. The film isn’t just about the painting itself; Koefoed instead uses its story as a springboard to examine how corrupt businessmen and criminals use the art world to launder money, dodge tax laws, and rob the public of cultural masterpieces. After all, an ex-Soviet oligarch may not be able to transfer illicit funds out of Russia without raising the eyebrows of international investigators. But if that same oligarch spent hundreds of millions of dollars on paintings by Picasso or Gauguin, moved them to another country, and then resold them at wildly inflated prices with the aid of complicit auction houses happy for an eight-figure commission fee, there’s little any police force could do.
Which is exactly what happened to this alleged da Vinci. Notice the word “alleged,” for to this day there is still doubt among experts as to whether or not the painting is authentic. Not that it matters, as Koefoed explains. The film details how esteemed art museums, galleries, and auction houses seemed happy to ignore credible naysayers so long as they could sell exhibition tickets to the public or raise asking prices for sellers. After all, what’s more important: that something is authentic or that people think something is authentic? And who cares either way so long as it doesn’t hurt the bottom line?
Through it all, two figures seem to float above the madness. The first is Dianne Modestini, the woman hired for the painting’s initial restoration and who first suspected it might be an original da Vinci. Of all the people in the film, she seems to be the only one who acknowledges the painting as a work of art and appreciates it as such. She seems to care nothing for how much it’s worth or whether or not it’s truly authentic: it exists, it is beautiful, and therefore it is worthy of admiration and love.
The second is the figure of Christ himself staring out from the painting. If the film has one flaw, it’s that it misses the central irony lurking at the heart of this story: all this duplicity, all this subterfuge, all this controversy, backstabbing, and greed revolves around a painting of a man who raged against the wealthy and lionized the poor. This was a painting made to inspire religious devotion towards a savior who drove moneylenders from the temple and said the meek shall inherit the earth. Fortunes were made and lost over this image of a man who told the wealthy to sell all that they owned, give the money to the poor, and follow him. Did anyone at any point in the making of this film wonder to themselves that if Jesus could feed 500 people with five loaves and two fishes, how many more could he feed with nearly half a billion dollars? Suddenly Jesus’ face in the painting doesn’t seem so blank. Is that exasperation or resignation we read? If it isn’t, maybe it should be.