At Large  September 20, 2021  Jordan Riefe

The Lost Leonardo: A Film on the Painting You Will Never See

© THE LOST LEONARDO - Image by ADAM JANDRUP. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Robert Simon (left), Alexander Parish (right).

In the Spring of 2005, an item coming up for auction in New Orleans caught the eye of Alexander Parish, an art expert, who called his friend, dealer Robert Simon. There was something about Lot 664, a Salvator Mundi copy attributed to Bernardino Luini, a student of Leonard da Vinci. The only way to satisfy their suspicions was to bid on the painting, which in the end cost them a mere $1,175.

Over the next twelve years, the painting took a raucous ride to a bid of $450 million, becoming the most expensive artwork ever sold. It’s a ride chronicled in gripping fashion by filmmaker Andreas Koefoed in his insightful documentary, The Lost Leonardo, in theaters now.

“The interests in the painting being a Da Vinci, they are so huge. So the truth is ignored or put aside,” says Koefoed by zoom from his home in Copenhagen. “That goes for all the big institutions—you have the National Gallery (in London), that's authenticating it, later you have Christie's, you also have Sotheby's who helped sell it to (Yves) Bouvier. And I heard they made a contract where they couldn’t be sued if the painting turned out not to be a Da Vinci, and I think Christie’s did the same. Christie’s completely ignored all the doubts about the painting.”

Image by ADAM JANDRUP. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

ALEXANDER PARISH - Sleeper Hunter (USA).

Despite little evidence, Salvator Mundi is believed to have been commissioned around the year 1500 for Louis XII of France to honor his conquests of Genoa and Milan. There is only speculation on the painting’s path up until 1900 when it was purchased by wealthy textile manufacturer Sir Francis Cook for £120. It was attributed to Luini at the time, and the seller was Sir Charles Robinson, Surveyor of Queen Victoria’s Pictures.

Up until 1958, it hung in the Cook family manse, The Doughty House in London, then sold at Sotheby’s to American businessman Warren Kuntz from New Orleans for £45. He left it to his nephew in Baton Rouge who died in 2005. That’s when it appeared at the New Orleans auction.

Parish and Simon showed their painting to select experts who agreed that the lower half, the portion least restored, demonstrates the hand of a master. But the facial features, restored numerous times, are horrendous.

© Robert Simon. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

The Salvator Mundi cleaned version. Restoring the crack (2006).

The pair contracted restoration expert Dianne Modestini, an internationally renowned conservator of Old Master and nineteenth-century paintings. Cleaning away past restorations revealed a crack from top to bottom in the walnut board on which it's painted. Modestini proceeded to fill in the blanks, matching Da Vinci’s style to the best of her ability.

“People I’ve spoken to consider Dianne Modestini’s restoration a beautiful piece of work. But then there are different opinions about whether she should have used that kind of style of bringing it back to life or whether she should have kept it more clean,” says Koefoed about Modestini’s decision to fill in what was missing with what she hoped would blend with existing brushstrokes. “It’s also a choice that the owners of the painting must have made and she would carry it out. It’s not her own decision.”

Image by ADAM JANDRUP. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

JERRY SALTZ - Art Critic and Writer (USA).

Modestini’s restoration seems to be what casts the greatest doubts in the minds of many, notably the movie’s resident curmudgeon, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Magazine critic Jerry Saltz. Objecting to a Leonardo attribution mainly on the grounds that a Renaissance masterpiece isn’t likely to turn up in New Orleans of all places, he goes out of his way to trash Modestini’s restoration.

Doubts or not, a committee of five scholars gathered in 2008 at London’s National Gallery to determine once and for all the painting’s author. Most, confronted with a canvas that has been greatly restored, demur, though they tend to lean in the direction of a Leonardo attribution. The problem is no one actually says it.

“As Maria Teresa Fiorio says she was never asked directly and she didn't understand the concept of the session, that it was used in the way it was used. And when you ask the curator, Luke Syson, he was convinced it was a Da Vinci and they invited scholars who they thought would be positive. They didn't invite Frank Zöllner from Leipzig, who is considered one of the most important Leonardo scholars. He’s a bit pissed off he wasn't invited, but maybe there's a reason for that. Syson was convinced of the attribution himself so that he took the positiveness from the scholars as a confirmation. And he didn’t find it appropriate to ask the question directly, is it a Leonardo or is it not, he felt the atmosphere, everyone is positive, it’s a Da Vinci.”

What followed was the 2011 blockbuster show, Leonardo da Vinci: Painter of the Court of Milan, which billed Salvator Mundi as an authenticated work by the artist. In the minds of most, this silenced questions on the painting’s attribution. It also gave dealer Warren Adelson the juice he needed to sell the work for $200 million, which he nearly did to the Dallas Museum, though they could not manage the purchase in the end. Stuck with the most important painting of his lifetime and no one to sell it to, Adelson was visited by freeport mercenary Yves Bouvier who smelled blood and an opportunity. 

© THE LOST LEONARDO - Image by ADAM JANDRUP. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Yves Bouvier.

Bouvier—the seediest villain in a movie populated with villains—stores artworks and other treasures tax-free for the cynical rich. He forked over $83 million for the painting, then fabricated a tough negotiation through a series of emails to his client, Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev. In the end, he pretended to have purchased the painting for $127.5 million, pocketing a margin of $44.5 million for himself.

Just when you think crassness has peaked, the painting goes up for auction after Christie’s sponsors a “World Savior World Tour,” traveling the artwork to Hong Kong, San Francisco, and New York where it sells before a room full of gobsmacked wealthy who literally applaud as the dollar figure rises. The new owner? King Mohammad Bin Salman, yes, MBS, the one who imprisons women for driving, the one who had journalist Jamal Khashoggi dismembered with a bone saw in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

© THE LOST LEONARDO - Photo by ADAM JANDRUP. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Dianne Modestini and Ashok Roy inspecting the Naples copy of the Salvator Mundi (2019).

The painting was to finally be put on display for the public at the Dubai Louvre in 2018, but those plans were scrapped. It was then to be shown at the Louver’s 2019 comprehensive show honoring the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s passing, but Salvator Mundi was a no-show.

A mysterious book was then discovered, Léonard de Vinci: Le Salvator Mundi, co-authored by the Louvre curator Vincent Delieuvin, Myriam Eveno, and Elisabeth Ravaud of C2RMF (Centre for Research and Restoration in French Museums). Published by the Louvre, it is an account of lab tests and review of the artwork, concluding that it was indeed painted by Leonardo. When plans fell through for the painting to be shown, the book was scrapped and remaining copies destroyed, (it was subsequently reviewed by The Art Newspaper earlier this year).

Photo by Erika Svensson. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Andreas Koefoed (Director of THE LOST LEONARDO).

“When you talk to people who’ve read the book and its conclusions, it doesn’t prove anything,” notes Koefoed, who cites some of the book’s observations, noting that only conclusions but not studies were published. “In the end it concludes that it could also be a student. It points toward Da Vinci all the time and they conclude it’s by him, and then they say his students would do the same things. So it doesn't bring you anywhere.”

As the words “fake news” became part of the common lexicon over the past five years, we see it extend into areas outside of politics. To interested parties, the notion that Salvator Mundi isn't authentic is fake news, even if no one can prove otherwise. And if truth is beauty and truth is lost, then maybe the public will never have a chance to see Salvator Mundi.

“The money divides where you put the truth and the truth is ignored. It says something about the story and how it's all about controlling the narrative,” Koefoed says, reflecting on his movie’s themes. “To me, the story tells about the times we live in and how power and money overrule the truth. And now the painting is gone, so nobody can examine it. It’s not only the painting that is lost, it’s also the truth.”

About the Author

Jordan Riefe

Jordan Riefe has been covering the film business since the late 90s for outlets like Reuters, THR.com, and The Wrap. He wrote a movie that was produced in China in 2007. Riefe currently serves as West Coast theatre critic for The Hollywood Reporter, while also covering art and culture for The Guardian, Cultured Magazine, LA Weekly and KCET Artbound.

Subscribe to our free e-letter!

Webform

Latest News

Teenage NFT Artists Who Have Achieved Shocking Success
Teens, who grew up on social media and meme culture, have taken to the online…
Honolulu Museum of Art Acquires Soundsuit by American artist Nick Cave
The Honolulu Museum of Art (HoMA) recently acquired a major work by legendary…
Digital Artists You Need to Follow on Instagram 
Many of the most prolific and thoughtful digital artists have backgrounds in…
Chris Fallon: Irresistible Deception
In this new body of work, Fallon—known for his striking images of ambiguous…
Reframed: Quidor’s “Headless Horseman”
Upon its creation, Quidor’s painting was widely panned by art critics for being…