Documentary Review: Traveling the slippery slope that uncovered “The Lost Leonardo”

You might remember the end of this story. A murderous Saudi sheik buys a mysterious “lost” painting by Leonardo da Vinci for a king’s ransom and tries to get it wholly legitimized by loaning it to the Louvre Museum to display alongside a painting it somewhat resembles, the “Mona Lisa.”

There’s an uproar, and…

“The Lost Leonardo” engagingly takes us on the circuitous path this painting of Jesus, “Salvator Mundi” (savior of the world) took to get to that moment. It’s about a modest, period-correct damaged work on wood purchased in New Orleans that made its way, through restorations and a consensus of opinions by experts, scholars, dealers and curators to the center of conversation in the art world, setting staggering sales records all along the way.

Those appearing on camera testifying about “Salvator” range from the quizzical and amused to the defiant and defensive, with a little sheepishness creeping in here and there when the word “greed” enters the conversation.

A painting that cost “sleeper hunter” Alexander Parish and his investor/partner Robert Simon $1,175 went through sales and one of the most-hyped auctions ever before a Saudi sucker paid $450,000,000 for it a few years later.

All of it based on a series of assumptions, miscommunications, not-quite-endorsements and a major exhibition that lent it the aura of authenticity and led the auction house Christie’s to use the video below to hype it when it came up for auction, just people standing in rapt awe in front of a very famous painting, people including another “Leonardo.”

Director Andreas Koefoed interviews the journalists who dug into how all this happened and introduces the art skeptics who warned that someday, we’d all be looking back on this and wondering “how these idiots could have ever seen this as a Leonardo.”

But the “idiots” make a pretty compelling case, which lends “The Lost Leonardo” the air of an ongoing mystery that isn’t as settled as the skeptical — some of them loudly so — would lead us to believe.

Paintings by Leonardo — only 15 are known to survive — have “a strange presence,” one expert explains — “very assertive, very ambiguous.”

“Salvator Mundi” has that, and Christie’s used that awe-inspiring presence for what its discoverer snaps “is NOT even a good painting” to make that video above. It is just eerily enough like the “Mona Lisa” to give the non-expert pause.

Because who among us could tell the difference between a Leonardo, a “workshop of Leonardo,” a “follower of Leonardo” or “circle of Leonardo” or “copy of Leonardo” painting?

It’s on wood, which was Leonardo’s MO, plainly came from the 15th century, had damage and 500 years of attempted repairs, paint-overs and touch ups. “Salvator” invited the comparison and left room for doubt.

The film leaves much out of the picture’s provenance, its history of ownership, and not just the ancient gaps about who produced it and when. Was it really owned by Charles I or Charles II of England? How did it get from them to New Orleans?

But as reputations take credibility hits, sketchy Russians and slippery Swiss duck and weave and that one restorer finds her unfortunate place in immortality, “The Lost Leonardo” opens up a world to us that few movies — from “The Thomas Crown Affair” to “Tenet” — have ever let us see.

Obscene wealth, the gauche, unsophisticated rich, “experts” with agendas, “free port” storage and insane amounts of money float by under the unblinking gaze of an Italo-European Jesus, “Salvator Mundi” but still “not even a good painting.”

Rating: PG-13, for nude art images (seriously)

Cast: Alexander Parish, Robert Simon, Dianne Modestini, Evan Beard, Martin Kemp, Yves Bouvier, Jacques Franck, Georgina Adam and Jerry Saltz.

Credits: Directed by Andreas Koefoed, scripted by Andreas Koefoed, Christian Kirk Muff, Mark Monroe and Duska Zagorac. A Sony Pictures Classics release.

Running time: 1:40

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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