Early in “The Lost Leonardo,” there is one of those whoa! moments that can make you think that no movie is more gripping than a great documentary mystery about the art world. In 2005, two dealers stumble onto an obscure painting of Jesus Christ, his hand raised in a sacramental gesture, that’s being offered at auction in New Orleans. They think the painting has…something. So they team up to purchase it for $1,175. Much of the canvas has been painted over, and after they bring it to the noted art restorer Dianne Modestini, she goes to work on it, removing layers of varnish and overpainting to uncover an image that is striking but damaged, dotted with white blotches and streaks, like emanations of a lightning flash. But as she starts the process of restoration, filling in the colors, teasing out a buried layer that shows the thumb in a different position (an indication that the painting is not a copy), then gets to Jesus’s mouth, she is struck by a revelation. The lips are drawn with no line — an invisible dark touch of suggestion. The mouth perfectly matches that of the Mona Lisa. She declares, right then and there, that this is a Leonardo. For art lovers, it’s like witnessing a virgin birth.
The painting is called the Salvator Mundi (it depicts Christ as the savior of the world), and for a while — a very short while — “The Lost Leonardo” allows us to be swept up in the dream that it’s a freshly discovered masterpiece from 1500, one to place alongside the roughly 15 paintings that are known to be Leonardos. We don’t have to take Dianne Modestini’s word for it. The opening credits have already teased us by charting, on a graph, how the painting will increase in value over the next decade — from $1,175 to $83 million (2013) to $450 million (2017), which remains the record sale for a work of art. The painting will be authenticated by a team of renowned Leonardo scholars at the National Gallery in London, displayed there in triumph, and ultimately exhibited at the Louvre.
At the same time, the film’s Danish director, Andreas Koefoed, is busting this bubble. Here are some of the expert comments the movie blitzes you with in response to his initial question of why the Salvator Mundi caused so much fuss: “Everbody wanted it to be a Leonardo. And perhaps it is a Leonardo.” “This is simply a matter of economics, when you boil down to it. And greed. Basic human foibles. Money.” Or this comment from Jerry Saltz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic of New York magazine, who emerges as the film’s scrappy bard: “It’s not even a good painting!”
Many, of course, became convinced that it was a great painting. Yet one of the enthralling things about a first-rate art-world documentary — and “The Lost Leonardo” is a sensational one — is that it can take the regally forbidding and rarefied world of high-art knowledge, put it on display, and at the same time sweep all that to the side. These movies tell the audience, “The experts aren’t everything — you can also use your own eyes.”
If you look at the Salvator Mundi, it is obvious, from the start, that it probably isn’t a genuine Leonardo (much as we would want it to be), for the simple reason that the image is too flatly head-on and two-dimensional. The Mona Lisa is also a head-on portrait, yet even with its subject seated in that staid position it creates a depth of effect, a vibrance of presence, that every other Leonardo has. The Salvator Mundi does not. Beyond that, the original painting was so damaged that when we look at the restored version that “wowed the world,” 85 percent of what we’re seeing is Dianne Modestini’s painted-over restoration work. Did she effectively recreate the softly shadowed, melting-candle flesh tones of Leonardo? For sure. But when you look at all the art masters who’ve been brilliantly imitated over the years in fakes, that she did so is not really such a big deal. The painting is like a well-done replication of a fifth-rate Leonardo. That’s all it is.
Yet “The Lost Leonardo” shows us a world in which the power of suggestion has become a collective addiction: for the entrenched, for the greedy, for the art version of the starstruck (which is maybe all us). The movie convinces you that Dianne Modestini, who first heralded the painting and, in a sense, created it, did so innocently. Yet her desire to have found a Leonardo was like a tidal wave: It knocked a lot of judgment out of the way — and as we learn, many benefits would accrue. A lot of wheels got greased.
For a while, we think the movie will go back and forth, turning the issue of the painting’s identity — real Leonardo or not? — into its central mystery. But while “The Lost Leonardo” always has us craning our necks to see around the next corner of what one wag calls “the most improbable story that has ever happened in the art market,” the movie doesn’t play coy. Koefoed combines a bubbly sense of play with a gravity of purpose with a master interrogator’s ability to let people hang themselves with their own words. Is the movie about a mystery? Yes. But it’s not the one you think. It’s the mystery of how in the viral global cosmos of the 21st century, the reality of an image — even if it’s a lie — will take on a transcendent life of its own.
The art market, as Oliver Stone captured in Michael Douglas’s greatest monologue in “Wall Street” (it’s one that now looks more telling than “Greed is good”), has a perception/reality rubberiness about it. The auction houses (Sotheby’s, Christie’s) are high-end businesses more than they are holy temples of art scholarship, but when a painting that once sold for $5 million suddenly sells for $75 million, you can’t, in a sense, argue with the statement that has just been made about its value. “The Lost Leonardo” presents the ultimate case of a painting in which the (monetary) value became the tail wagging the dog of its (actual) value.
From the moment the Salvator Mundi got put out there, there were questions about its authenticity (which is why, for a good while, no one wanted to buy it). But once it tapped into that jacked-up nerve of auction fever, the price became the story. For a while, the film embroils us in the tale of two wheeler-dealers: the Russian oligarch art collector Dimitri Rybolovlev and the awesomely shady Swiss businessman Yves Bouvier, who purchased paintings, including the Salvator Mundi, and sold them to Rybolovlev for outrageous markups. The movie uses these two men to sketch in the the lawless hedge-fund jungle the art market has become. Remember the “freeport” in Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet”? Bouvier owned a chain of freeports, in which the wealthy could hide their priceless paintings and sell them without being taxed, because the paintings were technically in transit.
But this is about more than good old greed. The world now looks at a painting like the Salvator Mundi and thinks, Of course it’s a real Leonardo! Otherwise why would someone have paid $450 million for it? For a while, the identity of that particular buyer remained secret. Was it a businessman? A nation? Actually, both: It was Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudia Arabia. Why did he buy it? It’s suggested by one observer that he looked at the painting and saw himself in it. But he also insisted that the painting be exhibited in the Louvre in the same room as the Mona Lisa, thus validating the manufactured media hype that the Salvator Mundi was “the male Mona Lisa.” The Louvre refused. So MBS locked the painting away. His grand plan? The film suggests that he might make the Salvator Mundi his Mona Lisa in the desert: a draw to the world as he reconfigures the image of Saudi Arabia for the post-oil age. “The Lost Leonardo” is the first art-world documentary I’ve seen that captures what art becomes once it goes through the looking glass of greed: not just a commodity, but a way of transferring and manipulating power. It’s enough to make the Mona Lisa stop smiling.