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The Lost Leonardo Directed by Andreas Koefoed.Plugs: None. Nearest: Cottonwood, the Guild (9/26-9/30), or streaming.

The Lost Leonardo is a documentary film about the Salvator Mundi, the most expensive painting ever sold, claimed to be a long-lost masterpiece by none other than Leonardo da Vinci.

First appearing —suspiciously— a at New Orleans auction house, its two buyers paid a few thousand dollars for it, and apparently became convinced it was not what it first appeared to be (one of countless paintings done in Leonardo’s style) but was in fact painted by Leonardo himself. As it changes hands and experts (or “experts”) take sides about the painting’s authenticity, the price climbs and the stakes rise. Soon the world’s most famous art museums are involved, along with shady dealers and sketchy billionaires.

The Lost Leonardo is about art, but it’s even moreso a human story of psychology, deception, greed, commerce, and —strangely— international finance and money laundering. Even those who think that Thomas Kinkade is the pinnacle of painting talent will appreciate this film.

The film deftly moves around the globe, following experts and money, with stops in Berlin, New York, London, Geneva, and, well, let’s just say points further east. Though The Lost Leonardo is technically a documentary, it’s really more of a real-life mystery and thriller, due in large part to the film’s clever structure. It’s got a cast of characters ranging from nerdy to flamboyant, erudite to arrogant. I won’t give away too much of the story here, as the twists this film takes are best unpredicted.

The Lost Leonardo is partly about how and why people believe. As one expert notes, “Expectations are dangerous because you see what you want to see.” In this case people —including art historians, museum curators, and art dealers— wanted to see a long-lost painting by Leonardo, along with the accompanying publicity and quickly escalating price tag.  In the case of Salvator Mundi, there’s clear financial and psychological incentive for many people along the way to endorse it as real. Many things —and art in particular— are worth what people believe they’re worth, and have little inherent value. You may assume that your mint-condition Cabbage Patch (or chupacabra toy) collection is worth a fortune, but you may be in for a shock when you try to sell it.

At its heart, the film raises interesting questions of authenticity and legitimacy. What does it mean to be a “real” Leonardo da Vinci anyway? There’s art (strongly) believed to be painted by him, of course, such as the Mona Lisa. But there’s also art done by his students under his direct supervision. Then there’s art produced in his style, intended not as fraud but instead as tribute and for practice. In many cases of old works, including Salvator Mundi, the painting has been professionally restored, adding a complicating (but unavoidable) element of artistic authorship.  

For a more low-brow example, take your favorite band from the 1970s or 1980s that’s still touring today. It’s likely had multiple line up changes, and may not even have a single remaining original member of the band. Is it still really Lynyrd Skynyrd or Chicago or the Beach Boys? Yes? No? Maybe? Does it really matter? (Rock fans should check out the documentaries Quiet Riot: Well Now You’re Here, There’s No Way Back and the Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey for a look at the perils of replacing members.)

 The same can be said for art: if it brings you pleasure, does it really matter if it’s an original or not? What if you paid a fortune for it? Does it matter if a shiny stone is a $10 cubic zirconia or a $100,000 diamond, if they look identical to the naked eye?

To extend the analogy even further, we can look at the placebo effect in medicine. There are some conditions under which placebos can be as effective as an active ingredient. But that’s not the whole story, because it’s a very limited list. For some minor and temporary ailments, such as minor pain relief and insomnia, a placebo can be effective. But the placebo effect can’t set a broken leg or reduce blood sugar levels. In other words, it’s true that we view and understand much of the world through our own prisms and filters, but it’s an overstatement to suggest that our perceptions create or change reality, or that the gap between perception and reality is irrelevant. Believing you took an Advil instead of a TicTac may make your headache fade, but believing you’re cured of cancer won’t reduce a tumor; believing you’re rich won’t add zeros to your account balance; and believing you’re looking at an original Leonardo doesn’t mean you are.

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 There’s also the argument that even if it’s fake, the controversy surrounding it elevates its importance, sort of like Kim Kardashian being famous for being famous. Even if at some point somehow conclusively proven to not be painted by Leonardo, it’s still the painting that was once thought to be the titular Lost Leonardo, and that by itself makes it an object of interest, for the same reason that the alleged diaries of Adolf Hitler or Howard Hughes are still of historical interest despite being definitively debunked.

 As the film goes on the painting itself becomes secondary to an investigation into the opaque world of art auctions, where much is smoke and mirrors. Buyers of art have the right to remain anonymous, and often choose to do so. But at the price that Salvator Mundi fetched ($450 million), the list of potential buyers becomes pretty short. When the stakes are that high, international police agencies become interested because of potential tax implications (for more check out the documentary The Panama Papers, currently on Netflix), and because rare art is sometimes used as collateral to secure loans at international banks (who knew?). With a process as intentionally murky as art auctions, the hallowed halls of Sotheby’s is rife with shady shenanigans. Who, then, is the authority? Can we even know with any certainty what the truth is? Does it even really matter to anyone but the buyer and art historians who painted Salvator Mundi?

The Lost Leonardo is one of several recent documentaries dealing with high-end fakery and forgery, along the lines of Art and Craft, Sour Grapes and Made You Look. Like the documentary Misha and the Wolves, which I recently reviewed, the film gets into the on-the-ground detective work, not only investigating the provenance of the painting but also how it changed hands.

Even the current (apparent) owner has not confirmed its purchase, and as of this writing the location of the world’s most expensive disputed painting is not publicly known. The Lost Leonardo is top-notch documentary filmmaking that offers a revealing glimpse into both the rarified art world and the human condition.  

Benjamin Radford

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Pat Davis

Pat Davis is the owner and publisher at Ctrl+P Publishing.

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