The Lost Leonardo directed by Andreas Koefoed and written by Duska Zagorac, Mark Monroe, Andreas Dalsgaard, Christian Kirk Muff and Andreas Koefoed. The film is a fascinating documentary that delves into the nail biting discovery of the painting Salvator Mundi (a portrait of Jesus) that was ill-used, in ragged condition and an obscurity for decades or centuries depending upon what you believe. It was sold for a mere $1,175 in 2005 by New Orleans auctioneers who didn’t really pay much attention to provenance or the possibility of its potential greatness. However, purchasers who hunt for sleepers (undiscovered renowned works) thought it might have value. They wanted it to be restored with the intention of reselling it. How lovely if it slipped under the radar of the New Orleans merchants who were not schooled in high Renaissance art. Finders keepers and all that!
Thus begins the journey of a painting that remains a mystery to this day and has been examined, pawed over and quibbled about by some of the most prestigious art galleries, museums and their curators in the world. Like a well-heeled detective, Andreas Koefoed cobbles together the video clips of individuals who pondered over, investigated and worked on the Salvator Mundi. He also interviews art critics, museum curators, experts, scholars, art historians, investigative journalists, the Founder of the FBI Art Crime Team and shady art dealer businessmen who profit off of billionaires who purchase such costly works privately or at auction. These wealthy could care less if the provenance is in question as long as the perception remains that it is authentic. They do this in order to bury their money in the painting purchase which hides a record of their wealth from the pernicious eyes of tax collectors.
The adventure Koefoed embarks on is thrilling, and he unspools the clues like a master mystery writer. The chase of whether this work is truly the “lost Leonardo” keeps one enthralled. However, there is no conclusive finality and uncertainty reigns with every word his subjects use to speak about the painting.
Perhaps conceived with hope initial buyers Alexander Parrish, sleeper hunter, and his friend Robert Simon (an old masters paintings expert) fantasized about what the Mundi was and who painted it. They acted on their conceptualizations, and to satisfy the curiosity of their wallets, they brought the Mundi to top art restorer Dianne Modestini who had partnered with a spot-on expert recently deceased, from whom she had learned. With his assistance, over the years, she had gained expertise and knowledge restoring fine paintings.
As Modestini worked on the Salvator Mundi, she nearly fainted examining the mouth of the figure in the painting. The Salvator Mundi‘s similarities around the right side of the upper lip resembled that of the Mona Lisa. The more she worked, the more she concluded that only one individual could paint in this way: Leonardo da Vinci. As time progressed, the Salvator Mundi in verbal shorthand is referred to by ironist art critics as the male Mona Lisa.
Only eight known paintings are globally attributed to the Renaissance master who was “forward thinking” by about 500 years; among his papers are drawings of space ships and underwater submersibles. He was a scientist, painter, mathematician, inventor and all-around genius. However, that this is a “da Vinci” turning up at auction, like a ghost from the backwaters around New Orleans, remains as implausible and incredulous to some global art experts as unicorns are to empiricists. And these scholars are prepared to deny the work’s authenticity as are those experts who are prepared to defend it to the death as a Leonardo. Belief and faith in the power of money trumps any concern about whether it is a fake that a highly skilled genius painter tossed off and was happy to get some money for.
The problem with any work of fine art, is to establish the provenance and period when it was painted based upon the artist’s technique, any underpainting, the chemicals used to mix the paint as well as the chemical composition of the pigments. Art restorer Dianne Modestini affirms on pain of death that the Salvator Mundi, which sold in 2017 for a record-setting $450 million, is the “lost Leonardo” based upon her understanding of the demonstrated technique and brush strokes.
On the other hand, art critic Jerry Salz who is knowledgeable about the corruption embracing high art sales, auction houses and art galleries who benefit from them is the receptacle of a vast skepticism about the Mundi. Saltz’s demonstrated wisdom is not to be underestimated. Indeed, the art industry has been taken over like other arts industries, for example theater, by the philistines. When money is concerned, auction houses and dealers allow the presence of fakes to take a backseat to money, power and the perception of authenticity, backed by lucid, clairvoyant analyses and explanations.
If you can get away with billionaires offering you hefty sums for works they believe to be authentic, but may not be, who is hurt? If the billionaires are squirreling away their treasures for the purpose of tax evasion in Freeports (tax free airport storage, above the law of all countries) no one will see these fakes anyway and the benefiting institution and billionaire are content. By the time they may have to sell them at a loss, most probably they’ve made twice as much in their corrupt enterprises in the interim. These rich guys are good for art; they are easier than the overhead of collecting subscriber donations and the hard work of charitable fund raising galas to run galleries and museums sometimes at a loss.
An additional factor to consider as to why the allure of wealthy anonymous buyers is so great for the art industry is that running public museums and private art galleries, one must pay exorbitant insurance costs and for security to prevent the little people from thieving works off the walls and reselling it to rich clients who can only display them privately. Better that the art dealers, auction houses and galleries contract with these billionaires who risk purchasing fakes which will most likely be kept in locked rooms in their mansions, Freeports, villas or one of their 15 million-dollar condos neatly situated in favored cities around the world.
The only ones concerned about fakes are the renowned public museums with a rich history of standing by their experts’ knowledge, respected institutions like the Louvre or The Metropolitan Museum of Art or the British Museum. They do not take kindly to displaying fakes or works that are questionable alongside their incredible proven treasures. And perhaps millionaires who don’t have the money to burn on fakes might be concerned. Other than that, billionaires have entered the art world and they are a sure thing for art dealers and auction houses.
In this amazingly instructive film about the upper classes and the corruption of geopolitical wealth, the filmmaker and writers launch off into three thematic threads emphasizing the concept at work which is the “game.” Sectioning off three segments to keep our understanding regular, he amasses a tremendous amount of research in video interviews, archived photos of works and voice overs. These are structured as the “Art Game,” the “Money Game” and the “World Game.”
It is in this discussion of how art is a game, we begin to understand the shadowy dark money world that fuels fakes and authentic pieces alike. Clearly, the filmmaker reveals that one doesn’t engage in this game naively or without experience and circumspection or you will be taken and regret it. How well can you play the game? How well can you game the auction houses and art dealers? How thoroughly can you game yourself?
If you (like the Russian oligarch who purchased the Salvator Mundi from a French Freeport owner are stuffing away your potential fake in Freeport storage units, then art is a safe, untraceable transaction far from Interpol or Vladimir Putin. As an investment it is unrecorded in any bank unless it’s the safely corrupt Cyprus Bank which deals with foreign transactions from corrupt leaders, and practices money laundering.
Such art has no significance to oligarchs, least of all the meaning of “the savior of the world” Salvator Mundi, which may be a joke to the oligarch or afterward MBS who purchased it anonymously as revealed by the FBI art crime bureau. If you truly care about seeing the Mona Lisa or a work of Rembrandt, then the corruption of viewing a fake is monstrous. The reason why the public purchases memberships in museums and donates millions is because they believe what they view is the “real deal.” The fiasco with the sales of the Salvator Mundi and its dubious authentication based on faith has exposed the art industry’s realm of “alternative realities” and the grand con possibilities. Is it or isn’t it a fake? Only the “little people” are self-righteously outraged if what they look at are fakes hanging in the walls of prestigious museums.
Auction houses and galleries and museums have bridged the reality gap into the alternate Donald Trump/Vlad Putin universe (my intimations, not the filmmakers though it is an important theme for our time). These dealers, auction houses and their buyers justify the authenticity or value of the works they sell because they can, especially if the industry trafficks in bullshit. The honest critic or expert is unwanted then, no matter their weight in gold. These themes Andreas Koefoed raises in this profound documentary which is a sweet siren’s warning. And it gives the average museum goer the fodder to ruminate and feel rage at how art has become an untrustworthy commodity, not a historical, cultural legacy.
But billionaires don’t mind the cache that goes with owning various works, for example, MBS who was anonymous until the great reveal by the FBI. Why would the murderer of WaPo reporter Jamal Kashoggi be interested in a painting that means “the savoir of the world?” The thought of his repentance at his villainous acts of killing family and the “traitorous” reporter is laughable.
On the other hand the notoriety of buying it because he could, was alluring. Owning the painting was a way to gain acceptance and prestige. This was so much so that he enticed the curators of the Louvre that he would loan the Salvator Mundi to them as representative of the “Lost Leonardo,” the male Mona Lisa with its provenance and authenticity in doubt. They were interested, until they heard his conditions. They must hang his purchase with the clouds of fakedom wafting off it—next to the Mona Lisa. The publicity alone would be tremendous. In 2011, the UK’s National Gallery displayed the male Mona Lisa with all its warts of uncertainty so that crowds could show up and imagine it was real. For the Louvre to hang the “Male Mona Lisa” next to the “Mona Lisa” would be a validation of it, sort of like riding the Mona Lisa‘s coattails into veracity, truth and art reality.
The Louvre refused. They were not willing to display a potential fake next to their acquisition whose provenance they were certain of. And MBS, annoyed that his offer was spurned, didn’t take them up on allowing them to display the Mundi in a separate room, explaining its restoration and questionable provenance. Of course the film does not go into the irony of a MBS with all his murders on his head, owning the portrait of Christ as the “savior of the world.” It doesn’t have to. The irony is stunning as is MBS’s arrogant longing.
With the exception of museums who display art so that the public can enjoy it, this whole industry is a philistine’s game (the money lenders and buyers who trade). They could care less if David Bowie (no offense meant to this fabulous artist whom I adore) smeared some of his dung on a canvas and signed it and sold it to the highest bidder. Such was the case with Pablo Picasso who became so disgusted with the “trade” aspect of art in the hands of philistines, he used to draw on napkins at restaurants and depending upon whether he liked the wait staff or not, signed the napkin and gave it to them. In some instances, he drew it, signed it and then destroyed it as they hungrily watched. For the artist commercialization of their work is loathsome and welcome, but only if they reap the rewards in their lifetimes, which usually does not happen. However, what can be done if the vultures pick their bones clean after they’re dead and gone? No wonder Banksy rigged the shredding of his “Girl With the Baloon” after the gavel hit in an auction that garnered a record price for his work.
The Lost Leonardo presents a vital perspective of the “art industrial complex” as it were. Who decides what is great art, even if it is potentially fake and not all the experts can agree on its authenticity? The fact that it’s MBS who purchased it for (after a circuitous route of sales from $1175, to $87 million, then $127 + million) $450 million does nothing to establish its credibility. And after the National Gallery exhibited it to great celebration as a da Vinci in 2011, they mired themselves in the smut of gaming when the FBI revealed that MBS purchased it for a price which means it’s now unsaleable and unpresentable if he persists in riding on the coattails of other Leonardo paintings which he could afford, but which should not be sold to him. This is especially so after it has been proven that he ordered Kashoggi to be brutally murdered, an M.O. of his despite his vapid denials.
However, like many billionaires who remain anonymous he worked through an agent. Would the auction house have sold this work to him if they knew he was purchasing it? They know how to play the game. And as a result, they have smeared themselves and the art world with BS which is what the Dutch filmmaker subtly infers in The Lost Leonardo.
This is a film to see, if not for a good look at the painting which is mostly a restoration and therefore, is more Dianne Modestini’s effort than da Vinci’s. It finished screening at Tribeca Film Festival. Look for this beautifully edited and scripted documentary streaming on various channels or perhaps at your favorite Indie theater after its release on 13 of August. Don’t miss this Sony Pictures Classic if you love art and are interested in learning more about the specious and scurrilous art traffickers which unfortunately find dueling interests with renowned museums who cannot afford works of art, after the traffickers bid the works to obscene heights.