By Elias Savada.
Danish director Koefoed has created an absorbing gathering of principal players in the scams and schemes at play in the art world, gathering opinions, comments, and stories that could make your toes curl, and rob you blind.”
When I say Leonardo, most of you will think either DiCaprio or da Vinci. Forget the actor (for now, but wait, isn’t that him about an hour into The Lost Leonardo?), as Andreas Koefoed’s new documentary delves into the Italian polymath and a painting known as Salvator Mundi, often attributed to the High Renaissance master. Fresh off a 1-2 festival circuit punch (Tribeca Film Festival and AFI DOCS) this June, the Danish filmmaker’s latest feature arrives in theaters courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics and sets about reflecting on events over a 15-year timeline. This provocative yarn tells a fascinating story about who, what, where, and when the most talked about painting of the century became the most expensive painting ever sold ($450 million, and change).
So here’s my two cents. The Lost Leonardo is one sly film, mischievously delving into the mechanics and shenanigans in the art and auction worlds as they push conflicting beliefs on the artwork’s provenance and beyond. It’s a thrilling example of I Told You So. Or Not.
There’s an air, and sound (thanks to a score of curiosity by Sveinung Nygaard), of mystery as Koefoed’s film opens, a seeming reconstruction of events, but not quite. He keeps you guessing, for a while at least, if it’s real or if it’s Memorex (look that reference up kids), wondering, for instance, if the video of New York City’s Park Avenue actually is from 2005 as it claims. That, and how the director gets the main characters to re-step their presumed pacing as some recollect their involvement along the path to fame and, for some, fortune.
The story starts with a sleeper hunter. Wait, is this a horror film? No, again, let’s try to get you in focus. For those out of the art loop, a sleeper is usually a mislabeled work of art, often credited to someone other than the true artist. A sleeper hunter, in this film’s case, is Alexander Parish, an art sleuth who can spot an undervalued piece as something more than advertised. He spins his account — that that he spotted what possibly was a lost da Vinci at a New Orleans auction in 2005. It’s presumed to be an “After Leonardo da Vinci,” and thus just a copy of a lost chef-d’oeuvre.
Moving along, Parish contacts Robert Simon, an Old Masters art dealer, who, framed in his darkened office as if an old master himself, carries the history forward. They buy the painting. Purchase price: $1,175, below the catalog estimate.
Koefoed keeps it plain and simple, offering an array of over two dozen experts in the field — museum directors, curators, investigative journalists, businessmen, an ex-CIA operative, art critics, academics, art dealers, and the top art restorer in the field (Dianne Modestini), who comes under attack late in the movie — often quite opinionated while talking straight to the camera, some believing that this canvas was authentic. Others, not so much. “It’s not even a good painting,” Simon emphasizes. So, what are we to believe?
There’s a lot of handing off from one participant to the next, sometimes edited as if responding to someone else’s comments. The director connects the dots and weaves the talking heads into an engrossing tale. Some chemistry is involved. And a little finesse, as the action shifts from New Orleans to New York, and then across the Atlantic to London, where the Salvator Mundi is displayed in 2011-12 at the National Gallery as the centerpiece of an epic show Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan.
This first half-hour, called The Art Game, is followed by The Money Game, in which millions of dollars are bantered around by various people, looking to get a cut of the action. Not all the dollar amounts match, and the pie doesn’t seem to be sliced evenly, with lots of double dealing between Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev and his Swiss art advisor and businessman Yves Bouvier. The latter, snubbing his stuffiness at the Soviet investor, drinks from a coffee mug emblazoned with the Moscow skyline as he relishes talking of his deceitful dealings. Here, Koefoed excels in piecing the puzzle together, even if it’s a re-creation scenario. It’s a heck of a lot of fun watching these movers and shakers point fingers at one another. By the end of this chapter centered around the money grubbing (and tax avoidance maneuvering), you’ll be quite convinced that it’s all about greed. Georgina Adam, an art market specialist, puts it in perspective, “After drugs and prostitution, the art market is the most unregulated market in the world.” Very dark, very opaque.
The second chapter ends, 45 minutes later, with the painting’s auction at Christie’s, with non-verbal reactions from the expanding cast charmingly intercut. While this all works as a beguiling educational tool, it also reveals that only those folks with very deep pockets will ever play in this billionaire’s party.
The final part, The Global Game, takes viewers to the world’s political stage, following the Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman (yes, he’s the one who approved journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in 2018), as the most likely purchaser, and using it to barter political favor.
Danish director Koefoed has created an absorbing gathering of principal players in the scams and schemes at play in the art world, gathering opinions, comments, and stories that could make your toes curl, and (for the billionaires amongst my readers) rob you blind.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).