Leonardo da Vinci’s recently rediscovered painting Salvator Mundi (ca. 1500) may very well eclipse the Mona Lisa in fame, though the reasons why have to do less with its art-historical significance than its market value—the painting sold for $450 million at a Christie’s auction in 2017. This paradox guides Andreas Koefoed’s masterfully told documentary The Lost Leonardo, which debuted this weekend at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. In just 95 minutes, Koefoed charts how the painting became the most expensive artwork of all time and how it mysteriously disappeared, in the process managing to offer new insights into a story that has been explored ad nauseam in the press.
The film opens dramatically, with reenacted footage of a man rifling through an art storage unit at night. With a flashlight in hand, he explains what a “sleeper” painting is: “a painting that’s being offered … which is clearly by a much better artist than the auction house has recognized. A sleeper hunter is someone who looks for these mistakes, and that’s what I do.” We soon learn that he is Alexander Parish, one of the two art dealers who purchased the painting at a 2005 auction in New Orleans, where Salvator Mundi sold for $1,175 and was attributed to one of Leonardo’s followers.
When he unpacks the work, Parish quickly realized that portions of it had been painted over. He and his partner in the deal, Robert Simon, brought on Dianne Modestini, an art restorer who is also a conservation professor at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, to clean the painting. She discovered that it was extremely damaged, with parts of the figure’s face almost indiscernible. Later on, Modestini uncovered that the artist had changed the position of the Christ’s thumb, generating a pentimento, or evidence of an artist’s revision. Only later, as she was restoring the lips of the figure, did she note similarities between the painting and the Mona Lisa. “No one except Leonardo could have painted this picture,” she tells Koefoed.
Modestini’s role in the Salvator Mundi saga is controversial, and it’s clear that she agreed to be interviewed to rebuff her critics by sharing her side of the story. Modestini has been accused of having financial interest in the work, as some people believe that she was a part owner in the work. In the documentary, she flatly denies this, saying only that she was “paid generously” for the restoration.
Koefoed’s film interrogates her restoration process, with Leonardo expert Frank Zöllner saying, “The new parts of the painting look like Leonardo, but they are by the restorer. In some parts, it’s a masterpiece by Dianne Modestini.” Modestini responds: “Well, that’s ridiculous because I can’t paint like Leonardo. I mean, it’s very flattering, but it’s absurd.”
Simon, too, began to look for proof that this painting could in fact be a Leonardo. The work in question can be traced back as far as 1900, but its provenance before that is murky. “Where did this object come from and in what context did it land in the moment it’s in right now?” asks Evan Beard, global art services executive at Bank of America. Still today, no one has the full story, but Simon claims to have been found in the inventories of the English kings Charles I and Charles II two now-missing works by Leonardo da Vinci, both called Salvator Mundi, that describe the works as depicting a figure holding an orb. The rediscovered Salvator Mundi doesn’t have the royal brand (a crown with the letters CR underneath) on its back, as would be expected of works that were in royal collections, but to Simon that’s just an irrelevant detail.
For some, what cemented this rediscovered work as a bona fide Leonardo was its inclusion in a 2011 exhibition about the Renaissance artist at the National Gallery in London. The show’s curator, Luke Syson, asked Parish and Simon to bring the work to London to be reviewed by a panel of da Vinci experts, including Martin Kemp and Maria Teresa Fiorio. A cagey Syson says in the film that Kemp and Fiorio both felt strongly that it was a Leonardo. But the two experts deny this to Koefoed, telling him that they would have never given such an opinion, especially in such an informal setting. Another layer of mystery derives from whether any scientific analysis was done to the painting prior to its London debut.
Enter the beleaguered Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier, who has become well known for the numerous lawsuits that have been brought against him by his onetime client, the Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev. Rybolovlev believed that Bouvier was acting as his art adviser, and that he would take a commission on works that Rybolovlev purchased. In actuality, Bouvier bought high-quality, blue-chip masterpieces for a certain price and sold them for a steep profit to Rybolovlev, pocketing a reported $1 billion for himself.
One of those works was Salvator Mundi. The U.S. dealers had in mind a $200 million price tag for the painting. Bouvier was able to negotiate it down to $83 million, but he told Rybolovlev he was only able to get it down to $127.5 million. It’s clear that he has no regrets. “You buy low and you sell high,” he says in the film. “It’s the principle of commerce. People don’t understand and say, ‘Mr. Bouvier is a cheater,’ but Mr. Bouvier is a businessman like any other.”
Once Rybolovlev learned that he was essentially swindled by Bouvier, he tried to sell the works he had bought through Bouvier at auction. Unimpeachable masterpieces by Klimt, Gauguin, Magritte, Picasso, and Rothko were consigned by Rybolovlev to Christie’s, as well as Salvator Mundi. But, according to Evan Beard, the Bank of America executive, the only work that “had questions around it” was the Salvator Mundi. In order to “keep their client happy, they went all in on this picture.”
And so began a frenetic marketing campaign in which the auction house called the painting the “male Mona Lisa.” In one promotional video, actor Leonardo di Caprio is shown standing in front of the painting. Meanwhile, the painting goes on a global tour, as crowds snake around the block to get a glimpse of it. As Alison Cole, the editor of the Art Newspaper, puts it, “Christie’s is in the business of selling—it’s not in the business of authenticating.”
After the painting sold for $450 million, shooting far beyond its $180 million estimate, speculation swirled about who bought it. New York Times journalist David Kirkpatrick reported that it was bought by a proxy for Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. MBS and the Saudi government have never confirmed that they were the buyers, though Koefoed spends time exploring why they may have purchased the work. Was it merely a political strategy intended to boost Saudi Arabia’s place in the international art world, or did MBS simply have a personal connection to the work? Koefoed never offers definite conclusions, and it’s possible no one will ever know for sure what really happened.
Given the timing of the sale, some wondered if the work might reappear in the 2019 Leonardo exhibition at the Louvre in Paris, timed to the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death. It never ended up going on view at the museum, igniting further controversy. Adding more fuel to the fire was the fact that though the Louvre had secretly analyzed the painting and produced a booklet, full of new technical information, in which the museum confirmed “that the work is by Leonardo da Vinci.” That book was never officially published by the Louvre because the loan never came through, and the museum has tried to deny its existence.
Major questions still linger: Is Salvator Mundi without a doubt a work by Leonardo da Vinci? Was the work really purchased by MBS, and why would he have paid such an astronomical price for it? Where is the painting now, and will the public ever see it again? Viewers expecting answers may find themselves disappointed by The Lost Leonardo, which doesn’t come any closer to the truth than any prior reporting on the subject. What the documentary does show, though, is that, no matter what the truth is, everyone has their own set ideas about Salvator Mundi, and there’s no convincing them otherwise. As investigative journalist Alexandra Bregman says at one point, “Even if it’s decided months, years, decades later that it’s not really by Leonardo da Vinci, those $450 million will live out in eternity as a value put upon this work of art.”
The Lost Leonardo premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on June 13. It is scheduled for a theatrical release in the U.S. this August.
Correction, June 14, 2021: An earlier version of this article misspelled Alexandra Bregman’s surname. The article has been updated to correct this error.