Leonardo da Vinci was lucky enough to live centuries before “branding” and “post-truth” became buzzwords. But as Andreas Koefoed’s new documentary The Lost Leonardo shows, his legacy is still tarnished by them. Interviewing art critics, restorer Dianne Modestini, dealers and even a former CIA agent, Koefoed constructs two narratives out of his material. First, The Lost Leonardo shows the process by which the “Salvador Mundi,” a painting of Jesus rediscovered in New Orleans, transforms from a Renaissance portrait in the style of da Vinci that could’ve been painted by anyone to a certified da Vinci masterpiece. The second one is related, showing the painting’s vast elevation in price. It initially sold for the reasonable price of $1,175, but exponential inflation set in by the time Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman paid almost half a billion dollars for it.
One could draw much larger conclusions from these two stories, but Koefoed sticks close to his material. The art world’s venality is a common target in documentaries and, more rarely, narrative films. The Lost Leonardo reveals a hidden world of tax-free storage in airports, as well as the usage of enormous art purchases to launder both money and reputations. Will owning a da Vinci (if that’s what it really is) help bin Salman cover up the stench of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder and his country’s repressive politics?
The presence of a CIA veteran among its interview subjects suggests The Lost Leonardo’s spy-thriller aspirations. More than most documentaries, it’s oriented toward storytelling. That said, Koefoed’s tendency to shoot close-ups of his subjects outside with gray, muted cinematography does not enhance the drama — nor do his long establishing shots of cities’ skyscrapers, taken from a drone. But The Lost Leonardo muses about authorship. The “Salvador Mundi” looks much clearer following its restoration by Modestini, but it also looks so different from its original state that several people suggest Modestini is its real artist. To put it a more positive spin on it than the film does, restoration is a creative act. In this case, it reveals details about the painter’s first draft of Jesus’ hand.
New York magazine critic Jerry Saltz and artist Kenny Schachter, who are close friends, are The Lost Leonardo’s designated rebels. The film shows Saltz taking a reproduction of the “Salvador Mundi,” writing “NOT ART” on it and turning it upside down. But what if the painting still holds beauty and meaning for someone, even if we can’t be sure that it was made by da Vinci? A very good painting by one of his students still amounts to something.
The Lost Leonardo reveals that when vast sums of money enter the realm of art, aesthetics fly out the window. While the authorship of “Salvador Mundi” remains a question (at least to the director and many of his interview subjects), no one would make tens or hundreds of millions selling a decent, well-crafted relic of the Renaissance — until, that is, it’s billed as the “male Mona Lisa.” Doug Dillaman’s short “You Could Have Seen the Mona Lisa,” shot at the Louvre in 2019, shows how it’s impossible to get anywhere closer than 50 feet to that painting, which may indeed be the most famous piece of art in Western history. If the “Salvador Mundi” could get 1 percent of that attention — not to mention money — who would hold up that process?
As documentary funding by American streaming channels has risen, many have settled into a formula of archival footage and talking-heads interviews, with the occasional animated scene to liven things up and a dark, ambient, droning score to manipulate the audience’s emotions. The Lost Leonardo — directed by a Dane and produced with money from several European countries — has greater ambitions. It does, however, ground all of its conclusions in material reality. If you want to extrapolate a wider message about the fragile state of truth in contemporary life, you can. As Saltz says, “Power is never neutral.”