The best art documentaries read like spy novels or heist films—possibly because so much of art history involves theft, forgery and intrigue among the upper echelons of (mostly European) high society. The Lost Leonardo, the latest documentary from Danish filmmaker Andreas Koefoed (Ballroom Dancer, At Home in the World, The Ghost of Piramida), confirms this theory beautifully. It is a jaw-dropping thriller of an art history lesson, just a couple car chases away from the plot of a James Bond film. And it’s rendered all the more shocking because its completely true.
The film starts off gently by introducing us to Alexander Parish. The unassuming Parish describes himself as a “sleeper hunter”—that is to say, an investor who seeks out undervalued or misidentified works of art at auction. It’s a job that relies as much on hunches as on education. Decades ago he and some partners purchased a painting of Jesus Christ called “Salvator Mundi” at an auction house in New Orleans. Despite a great deal of overpainting on the badly damaged portrait, Parish had a hunch. Parish’s consortium contracted Diane Dwyer Modestini at New York University to restore the work. While working laboriously on the religious icon, Modestini confirms Parish’s hunch: She believes “Salvator Mundi” to be a famed “lost” painting by the one and only Leonardo Da Vinci.
Here is where the controversy kicks in. All across the globe, experts weight in. Writers, critics, historians, art restorers and museum curators are all eager to offer their two cents. Some are convinced it’s real. Others are sure it’s a fake. Either way, thanks to Koefoed’s exhaustive string of interviews, we get a snapshot of the colorful character types who inhabit this rarified international world. Among the standouts is art critic Jerry Saltz, an impossibly snooty fellow who’s sure that not only is the painting not by Da Vinci, it’s “not even a good painting.” Like most of its genre kin, The Lost Leonardo is a “talking head” documentary. But Koefoed knows how to milk the awkward pauses and the uncomfortable silences. The result is a film that says far more than it “says.”
At some point, Parish’s consortium tries to unload the painting onto a museum, but no one will bite at the unconfirmed masterpiece. Is it real? Is it not? The debate continues. That’s when things take an unexpected turn. Inserting themselves, bit by bit, into our polite little debate about art history are an international art dealer, a Russian oligarch, Christie’s auction house and arguably the most powerful dictator on Earth. Along with the mini-lessons on Da Vinci, sleeper hunting and art restoration comes one on something called “freeports.” Seems that the ultra rich of this world have set up “armored storage facilities” at airports around the world. This is not only a convenient place to store wildly expensive artwork: It’s also a way to trade millions without paying taxes. Seems these freeports provide tax loopholes. Since the goods inside them just move from airport to airport, never officially entering the countries in question, nobody has to pay taxes on the goods within. Evidently, the billionaires of the world are in desperate need of “mobile assets.” Getting $100 million from one place to another is difficult, since that sort of luchre is difficult to pull from banks and takes up a lot of physical space. But multi-million dollar artworks can be thrown in your carry-on luggage. Hence, the meteoric inflation in the international art market in just the last few years. Or as one erudite talking head puts it, “The curve is rather absurd.”
The next great character to enter the narrative of The Lost Leonardo is a wonderfully self-serving French art dealer named Yves Bouvier (who also happens to own the world’s largest chain of freeports). He engineers what seems like an impossible task: selling the questionable “Salvator Mundi” to a former Russian government official who turned his job into a multi-billion dollar business scheme. Our Russian (in a villainous scheme worthy of a Bond movie) needs those “mobile assets,” and he isn’t much interested in aesthetics. Suddenly, Parish’s controversial “sleeper” is—according to the international art market, anyway—worth more than $100 million dollars. And still our story doesn’t end.
The forehead-slapping twists continue, as our humble painting of Jesus jets around the world, pilling up owners, price tags and infamy. What starts out as an intriguing art history lesson evolves into a debate about art restoration and art forgery. Eventually, though, Parish and Modestini and the critics are left behind in the dust with the “ego and dreams of academics.” At some point it’s no longer about art. It’s about money. Inconceivable amounts of money. Which you can now credibly say about the art world itself.
In a weird way, The Lost Leonardo begins and ends as a testament to the power of art. But it’s no longer merely the power to affect hearts and minds. Art—a certain specific type of high-profile artwork, anyway—now has the power to change the very geopolitical makeup of the world. Maybe it’s time for 007 to trade his well-worn license to kill for a degree in art history.
The Lost Leonardo
Directed by Andreas Koefoed
Opens Friday in theaters