In 2017, “Salvator Mundi,” a painting widely but not unanimously attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, sold at auction for $450 million. Whoa! A dozen years earlier, it had sold for $1,175. Huh? “The Lost Leonardo,” a lively and very assured documentary, explains what happened and why.
There’s also a lot of who, and the interviewees may be the best thing in the movie. Usually, they face the camera directly, an effective bit of visual presentation. We hear from curators, conservators, scholars, journalists (the investigative kind as well as the cultural), a banker, and one former agent each from the FBI and CIA.
They all have a place here, for “The Lost Leonardo” is a story about not just art and money but also prestige and power, emphasis on power. A particularly welcome presence in the documentary is New York Magazine’s Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic, Jerry Saltz. He serves as both Greek chorus and comic relief. “Power is never neutral,” he reminds us.
A painting worth more than the seller realizes is called a “sleeper.” “Salvator Mundi,” a portrait of Jesus, was the sleeper to end all sleepers. When Alexander Parish, a self-described “sleeper hunter,” saw it on the website of a New Orleans auction house, he snapped it up. He joined forces with a dealer, Robert Simon, and they commissioned a noted conservator, Dianne Modestini, to examine the painting and begin its restoration. (The painting was severely damaged, one reason it sold for such a low price.)
Now begins the miracle, or the madness, or some combination thereof. Modestini wonders if it might be a Leonardo. For one thing, the rendering of Jesus’s upper lip is so distinctive and expert she thinks it like that of the “Mona Lisa.” London’s National Gallery brings in five authorities to examine the painting. Several feel that the painting is a genuine Leonardo, rather than painted by him only in part or by a follower of his. That genuineness would add several zeros to any future sale price.
The gallery includes “Salvator Mundi” in a 2011 da Vinci retrospective. Insofar as there are only 15 or so da Vincis extant, this is a big deal. It isn’t quite the art-world equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, but close enough.
Visions of sugarplums now dancing in their heads, Parrish and Simon bring in another partner, Warren Adelson. Simon feels they can get “a price in excess of $200 million.” Several museums are interested, but that’s too much money for them. Enter Swiss businessman Yves Bouvier.
We first see him riding a unicycle. This is fitting. Bouvier’s good at pulling off stunts. He’s also good at keeping his balance. Representing a Russian oligarch, he buys the painting for $83 million. Except it’s Bouvier who has possession. The next day — that’s not a typo: The. Next. Day. — he sells it to the oligarch, Dmitry Rybolovlev, for $127.5 million. What’s the Russian word for “markup”? You can bet it doesn’t also mean “$44.5 million.”
When Rybolovlev learns what went on, and it takes awhile, he is not pleased. He is not interviewed in “The Last Leonardo.” Bouvier is. He has the sleek, conscienceless charm of a Bond villain and remains quite proud of the score he pulled off.
Needing cash, Rybolovlev puts up for auction the excellent art collection Bouvier assembled for him, “Salvator Mundi” included. The lengths to which the auction house, Christie’s, goes to hype the painting are quite something to see, and the documentary shows them.
So that’s how “Salvator Mundi” came to be bought by a mystery buyer in 2017 for close to half a billion dollars. It was soon revealed who the buyer was: Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler. It’s all quite astounding, and “The Lost Leonardo” has a good deal more to offer.
Director Andreas Koefoed tells this story with brisk sophistication. It’s true that the line between assurance and slickness is narrow, and the documentary crosses it at times. The use of reenactments is both distracting and unnecessary, though also rare and usually brief.
Really, “The Lost Leonardo” is a detective story. Like any good detective story, it’s also a morality tale. Or maybe immorality tale better describes these goings on. That word “lost” in the title comes to take on multiple meanings. “This is the most improbable story, I think, that’s ever happened in the art market,” Evan Beard, a Bank of America executive, says early on. By the movie’s halfway mark, you see that’s not an exaggeration. By the end, you wonder if it’s an understatement.
THE LOST LEONARDO
Directed by Andreas Koefoed. Written by Koefoed, Duska Zagorac, Andreas Dalsgaard, Christian Kirk Muff, Mark Munroe. At Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square. 100 minutes. PG-13 (a casual profanity or two, and obscene amounts of money). In English and French, with subtitles.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.