The Lost Leonardo: a Thrilling Inside Story
Before it found its way to cinemas, the real-life story of the Salvator Mundi (Latin for “Saviour of the World”) unfolded like a high-stakes big-screen thriller. The painting, dubbed ‘the male Mona Lisa’, was long thought to be a copy of a lost original. In 2005, it was listed online as part of a sale at a New Orleans Auction, where it was bought by art speculator Alexander Parish and gallery owner Robert Simon for $1000. Twelve years later, the Salvator Mundi was purchased for $450 million at Christie’s New York, setting a record for the most expensive painting ever sold. The reason for the difference between these two prices? A detailed and extensive restoration, and a very debatable attribution to Leonardo da Vinci.
Directed by Andreas Koefoed, new documentary The Lost Leonardo is a fascinating, inside story behind the rise and rise of the controversial Salvator Mundi. The film features interviews with several key players from the saga, such as art restorer Dianne Modestini, and Swiss businessman and art dealer Yves Bouvier. Bouvier infamously made himself a profit of $44.5 million in two days by selling the painting to a Russian billionaire in 2013. From Swiss tycoons, Russian oligarchs, and now Saudi royalty, the Salvator Mundi’s story is both an astonishing tale of restoration and a shocking depiction of greed. Indeed, as its price has soared, so have questions about its authenticity: is this painting really by Leonardo da Vinci?
The film is about a mystery but not the one you think. It’s the tale of how the reality of an image — even if it’s a lie — can take on a life of its own. We’re shown footage of spectators reacting to the painting, showing the immediate response to an artwork simply by labelling it a Leonardo. The Lost Leonardo shows us a murky art world in which the power of suggestion has become like an addiction for the greedy. Now, at the centre of personal, economic, legal and geopolitical disputes – the location of the painting since its 2017 sale is unknown. The Salvator Mundi’s fate is determined by an avid quest for fame, money and influence. With The Lost Leonardo, Koeford constructs a captivating documentary with the fascination and tension of a contemporary thriller.
This article first featured in the Sheffield Telegraph on Thursday 9 September 2021.