“Lost Leonardo” unveils the mysteries of Salvator Mundi

NEW YORK – We’re used to movies – usually adventures, like “Indiana Jones” – with lines that travel the globe and pinball machines between world capitals, showing us where our characters travel. “The Lost Leonardo”, a documentary about the rediscovery of a painting by Leonardo da Vinci, begins with such a line. But its international stops, relating the sales of the painting, are disconcerting leaps.

New Orleans, 2005: $ 1,175.

London and Geneva, 2013. $ 83 million, then $ 127 million.

Saudi Arabia, 2017. $ 450 million.

Such is the winding journey of Salvator Mundi, a painting of Jesus Christ attributed to Leonardo da Vinci that has been shrouded in mystery and intrigue since it was acquired, restored and celebrated as a lost original by the Renaissance master . “The Lost Leonardo,” which Sony Pictures Classics hits theaters on Friday, captivatingly frames the unlikely saga as an international thriller as opaque as any John Le Carré novel.

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For its director, Danish filmmaker Andreas Koefoed, it is also a kind of dark fairy tale, with a prince and a lost treasure. It is perhaps above all the portrait of a world of art where masterpieces can serve as global capital.

“You have this romantic idea of ​​art as something pure and a beautiful expression of human beings throughout history and then it meets this very cynical and capitalist world,” said Koefoed, speaking by Zoom from Copenhagen. “It’s an explosive cocktail together.”

The painting in 2017 erased art sales records. But it was first acquired, as a wacky episode of “Antiques Roadshow,” during a real estate sale in Louisiana. While browsing, two New York art dealers felt it was worth buying to get a better view. They took it to one of the estate’s best restorers, Dianne Dwyer Modestini, who carefully removed the heavy paint that covered it and repaired other mistreatment of the intervening centuries. Gradually, she and others began to think that the painting was not the work of a pupil of Leonardo, as was once suspected, but of the master himself.

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Modestini’s connection with painting was particularly strong. She worked there for three years after the death of her husband, the Italian restorer and buyer of art Mario Modestini.

“It’s not just a painting. It’s more than that, ”Modestini says, speaking by phone from his New York apartment. “It is an object imbued with power. It sounds a little weird and cheesy but I believe it. When I was working on it, I had this experience of feeling that my husband was by my side all the time. And I couldn’t have done it without him.

Many art historians and institutions – such as the National Gallery in London, which exhibited the painting in 2011 – have come to the same attribution. (Modestini has created a website with technical details of his findings.) But not everyone agrees with his conclusions. In the film, art critic Kenny Schachter jokes that it is a “contemporary painting” for the importance of its restoration. Art critic Jerry Saltz calls it “no more real than any of the scams and schemes imagined by people who might not want to be flamboyant, but in the end they’ve all done the trick.” .

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In “Lost Leonardo”, it is a stroll through a world of art populated by colorful characters and eccentric billionaires. The painting was first sold to Swiss businessman Yves Bouvier, who expanded the use of free ports as duty-free stations for high-priced goods, such as works of art. He paid $ 83 million, but he was actually acting on behalf of Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev, to whom Bouvier immediately returned him for $ 127.5 million. (A high-profile trial took place when Rybolovlev learned of Bouvier’s negotiating tactics.)

In the art market as seen in “Lost Leonardo” it is rarely clear who is buying and who is selling. Someone calls it the least regulated market after drugs and prostitution. Even after the Salvator Mundi was auctioned off by Christie’s, the winning bidder of $ 450 million was unknown. It was only later that information leaked that the ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was behind the purchase.

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The Salvator Mundi was later to be exhibited at the Louvre, but was ultimately absent from a major exhibit, apparently due to the museum’s refusal to exhibit it, as Mohammed requested, alongside the Mona Lisa. Since 2017, the painting has not been seen publicly.

“It proves a point in history that the truth is sort of lost in all of this,” says Koefoed. “There are so many issues, so many power interests, so many money interests that the truth disappears. Not only do we have a lost picture, but we have also lost the truth in one way or another.

Koefoed, a seasoned documentary maker, has no background in fine arts and was only drawn into Salvator Mundi history after its headline-grabbing auction. He and cinematographer Adam Jandrup photographed many subjects head-on, as if they were sitting for a portrait, and lit them up much like a Renaissance painting. The film refuses to take sides in the still latent disputes over the Salvator Mundi.

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“I decided to remain open to both possibilities,” explains Koefoed. “I think it’s more interesting to let the viewer become their own detective in the story.”

The National Gallery, the Louvre and Christie’s declined to participate. But of the many players who have done so, none have a role like Modestini. His experience with painting and his disputed reputation is captured intimately. She has nothing but praise for Koefoed and his film, but the debates over the Salvator Mundi Modestini run out of energy for.

“I really don’t care. I know what I know about the painting and it seems obvious to me, attribution. If people have other ideas, that’s fine. But I would really like to continue with my life. He was so consumed by it. I will never make another film, ”says Modestini. “That’s all for me.”

Painting, however, still holds an important place in his mind. Her power, she says, really only comes in person. The effect cannot be photographed. It cannot be reproduced.

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“It just emanates this extraordinary sense of something that is totally beyond human comprehension,” says Modestini. “It’s a tragedy that she’s been so abused,” she adds, before thinking she’s out of sight. “It is an ongoing tragedy.”

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Follow AP screenwriter Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

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