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Will the real Leonardo da Vinci please stand up?

Dan Webster

Above: "The Lost Leonardo" is screening at the Magic Lantern Theatre. (Photo/Sony Pictures Classica)

Movie review: "The Lost Leonardo," directed by Andreas Koefoed, featuring Diane Modestini, Jerry Saltz. Screening at the Magic Lantern Theatre

In recent years, a number of documentary films have sought to explore the ties between artistic quality and commerce. A few of the more interesting ones theorize about the level of chicanery that lurks at the heart of the contemporary art market.

A good example was 2020’s “Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art” in which filmmaker Barry Avrich documents what is considered to be the most successful art-forgery scam in history. Beginning in 1995, the esteemed New York-based Knoedler Gallery – unwittingly, the gallery director claimed –purchased and sold some 60 Abstract Expressionist paintings. All were said to be the work of notable artists, among whom were Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. All were ultimately outed as fakes.

There’s no such consensus about the painting titled the Salvator Mundi (or “Savior of the World”), which is spotlighted in the documentary feature “The Lost Leonardo.” In fact, the authorship of the painting – reputed to be the Italian master Leonardo de Vinci – is only one aspect of the film.

Chief among Danish filmmaker Andreas Koefoed’s other interests is the twisted trail taken by the team that bought the painting for less than $1,200, including the restoration process that was the determining factor in their claim that it indeed was a bona-fide da Vinci. Moreover, once the painting was authenticated – by a number of experts – Koefoed shows how the Salvator Mundi changed hands before going on the auction block, selling first for $83 million and then, in 2017, for the unheard price of $450 million.

Some of the machinations Koefoed reveals give “The Lost Leonardo” the feel of an investigative thriller – one that involves what some see as questionable restoration methods, implications of outright fraud and even both the shady dealings of a Swiss art dealer and the wrath of a mysterious Russian oligarch.

Then, too, Koefoed is interested in how the art market values, and often overvalues, great art – even art whose authenticity is in doubt – and how the Salvator Mundi in particular was ultimately sold in public auction to a Middle Eastern magnate: Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman. For him, Koefoed suggests, the painting represented far more in world stature than merely ownership of the first so-called “found” da Vinci painting in a century.

Part of what makes “The Lost Leonardo” work is the wealth of access that Koefoed manages to achieve. He begins by interviewing the trio that purchased the painting at an auction in New Orleans, though he spends  the most time with art restorer Diane Modestini – who first vouches for the painting’s authenticity after removing both varnish and paint that had been covering up specific da Vinci-like features prominent in, yes, the Mona Lisa.

Others whom Koefoed interviews, at least some of whom stand to profit in one way or another from the painting’s authenticity – either through actual money earned or an enhanced reputation – agree. But not everyone. The Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic Jerry Saltz is blunt in his appraisal: “It’s not even a good painting,” he scoffs.

In the end, Koefoed doesn’t offer any real conclusion as to whether the Salvator Mundi is a genuine da Vinci. He leaves that decision up to us. But he does show just how shady the art world can be.

And if you add “The Lost Leonardo” to other similar films – “Made You Look,” say – you’re likely to end up questioning whether any painting you see is the real thing. Or even whether that makes any kind of difference.

After all, if experts can’t tell the difference between a masterpiece and a forgery done well enough to pass as one, who are we amateurs to express our doubts?

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