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The Lost Leonardo

Director: Andreas Koefoed (Denmark, France). Year of Release: 2021

We start being introduced to a “Sleeper Hunter”. A Sleeper is a painting which is worth well more than its price. A Sleeper Hunter sniffs them out and then sells them on at a profit. This particular Sleeper Hunter, Alexander Parish, sniffs out a painting called Salvator Mundi, for which he paid $1000 in 2005. By the time it is resold in 2017, it receives a record breaking $400 million (plus $50 million handling fees).

The price increase was helped by experts identifying the painting as being one of the around 15 existing pictures attributed Leonardo da Vinci. Well, some experts made this call. Others are adamant that is was made either by one of Leonardo’s pupils, or by someone else who was just copying his style. Critic Jerry Saltz is wheeled on at one point to say at different times “it’s not even a good painting”, and “it’s not even Art”.

Different experts express different opinions, and although they are all adamant and seem to believe what they are saying, they can’t all be correct. And we soon learn that no-one is completely disinterested. When the National Gallery finally authenticates the painting as a real Leonardo, this guarantees a huge audience at a National Gallery exhibition where it features. Others have staked their professional reputation on stating that it’s real – or that it’s a fake.

One bone of contention is the significance of Jesus’s thumb. Painting restorer Dianne Modestini discovers a painted over version of the thumb in a different position. This makes her believe that this must be a Leonardo original. Another art critic notes that the thumb is anatomically incorrect, and Leonardo – a close student of the human body – just wouldn’t draw something like that.

The controversy keeps the painting in the public eye. The significance of the title is that, as the last Leonardo in public ownership (if indeed it is a Leonardo), it is of great interest to people, and States, with too much money. The price keeps rising. CIA operatives explain how the increased price means that paintings have become important items to purchase for money laundering or geopolitics.

The auction house Christie’s gets a sense of the profits that could be made. Christie’s literally don’t care whether the painting was authentic or not, but realise that if people thought it is a Leonardo, they would make more money. They make a promotion video which didn’t show the painting itself, preferring to show members of the public, including Leonardo diCaprio, looking at it. The auction room fills with people taking selfies and the Christie’s auctioneer plays to the gallery.

Salvator Mundi is acquired by a Russian oligarch, who keeps it in a freeport – where it is technically in transit and not subject to tax. Then it is bought by Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman, referred to in the film as MBS. MBS keeps the painting on his yacht, or maybe in a Swiss bank. Whatever, the general public have limited access.

The Louvre is interested in displaying the painting as part of its anniversary for the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death. There is actually something in it for MBS. Like the Saudi purchase of Newcastle United, such cooperation with French High Culture can whitewash the Saudi régime, and draw people away from discussing rising prices, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi or military attacks on Yemen. In the end, MBS doesn’t think its worth his while.

Another mystery emerges. A catalogue is found from the Louvre exhibition while it was still believed that Salvator Mundi would be shown. It contains a statement by the head of the Louvre saying that it is a real Leonardo. This statement can not be found anywhere else, and most of the original catalogues have been pulped. The head of the Louvre is not available for comment, as are many people cited in the film.

The Lost Leonardo doesn’t answer many questions, preferring to present us with conflicting points of view and make up our own minds, it does paint a worrying portrait of an art world which has become increasingly dominated by Commerce. Did Salvator Mundi really become 400,000 times as good within 12 years? If it didn’t, what does a price of a painting actually measure? And can we trust the opinion of any experts whose livelihoods depend on their verdict?

One question isn’t asked, well not directly. Does any of this matter? If Salvator Mundi were not painted by Leonardo, it would be worse commerce for sure, but would it be worse art? You feel that this question is no longer relevant – the value of art no longer seems to by whether it is Any Good but on how much anyone is prepared to pay. O tempora, o mores.

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