THE title of the film The Lost Leonardo (Cert. 15) refers to Salvator Mundi. At $450 million, it is the most expensive painting ever, having been bought in 2005 in New Orleans for $1175. One contributor to the documentary calls it a story of economics and greed. More than that, we learn something about humanity’s appetite for celebrity, power, and fame, and where the subject-matter of the painting is all but ignored.
Leonardo da Vinci’s long-lost Saviour of the World portrait is believed to have been completed c.1500. Extant copies depict Christ blessing with one hand while holding an orb in his other, and Leonardo’s sketches show Jesus wearing Renaissance costume. In contrast with today’s ownership, the painting was probably undertaken to assist a patron’s spiritual devotions.
The orb in this particular Salvator Mundi is unlike other such iconography. Instead of a ball, solid, terrestrial or, where crystal, refracting light, this painting chooses clear glass. Some scholars argue that such an image distinguishes it enough from copies to indicate that it is, at least partly, an authentic Leonardo. Was this particular orb an assertion that the meaning of God’s world is, without distortion, entirely perceptible to those with the eyes of faith?
The money-grubbing shenanigans of recent times clash with a painting disclosing a different kind of price paid for our salvation. One expert equates the art world with drug dealers and pimps. Given viewers’ fascination with crime, deceit, and shady characters, this is an intriguing film. First, there is the hunter on the lookout for an underpriced picture. He sells it on with an exorbitant profit margin to an art dealer, who then contacts a Russian oligarch seeking a good investment. The mogul, deciding that he has been ripped off, engages in a series of lawsuits that pauperise his erstwhile business associate.
Tax dodges accompany the painting’s journey. There is also the authenticity question. Experts disagree. Dianne Modestini, who did the restoration work, became convinced that it was a Leonardo. Some impugn her impartiality with accusations of making money out of this claim. Shockwaves accompany the National Gallery’s deciding, after informally consulting Renaissance scholars, to exhibit the picture in London in 2011 as an authentic Leonardo. When Christie’s later got involved, they made the most of the hype, turning the painting into a celebrity. A marketing video never shows the painting, just visitors’ delighted reactions on seeing it. Some even speak of glimpsing the divine.
© sony pictures classicA still from the new documentary The Lost Leonardo
Jerry Saltz, an art critic, describes the euphoria as a human need to go along with the ride, nobody wanting to be kicked off the team of enthusiasts. It was no longer about the picture, but being able to say that you had seen it. The Bank of America and the CIA are among those interested in where the purchase money has come from. Money-laundering? Terrorism? There is suspicion that Saudi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is the secret buyer, surrounded in controversy himself regarding the journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s assasination.
The director Andreas Koefoed’s film has revealed not so much a painting that is a fake as a world in need of saving from one driven by cynical powers and money.
In UK and Ireland cinemas from today.