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The Lost Leonardo is in theatres Aug. 27 in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.Sony Pictures Classics

  • The Lost Leonardo
  • Directed by Andreas Koefoed
  • Written by Andreas Koefoed, Andreas Dalsgaard, Christian Kirk Muff, Mark Monroe and Duska Zagorac
  • Classification PG13
  • Available in theatres August 27 in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.

The international art market is a fabulous subject for documentarians, what with its airy promise of timeless beauty and its solid guarantee of eternal greed. The Lost Leonardo, a probing and twisting account of how a battered panel by an unknown Renaissance artist became the most expensive painting on Earth, is a classic in the genre. Dealers, curators, collectors and critics all betray themselves for Andreas Koefoed’s camera as they debate the merits of the notorious Salvator Mundi, the painting some attribute to Leonardo da Vinci and which sold at a 2017 auction for US$450-million. Can this lavishly restored painting showing a golden-haired Christ with one hand raised in blessing really be the work of the master?

With a thriller-like script stuffed with interviews with art experts and investigative journalists, The Lost Leonardo follows the painting from a minor New Orleans auction to the dazzling sale at Christie’s to discover how the work achieved a 38-million-per-cent increase in value in 12 years.

The painting was discovered by a U.S. dealer who ferrets out undervalued artworks, bought for US$1,175 in 2005 and handed to top restorer Dianne Modestini. While cleaning off overpainting and poor restoration work, she was shocked to discover what she believes must be the lost Salvator Mundi, a painting Leonardo was known to have produced but that disappeared from inventories centuries ago. The restorer defends both the painting and her subsequent work on it, scoffing at critics who suggest the panel is more Modestini than Leonardo. How could she possibly paint as well as him?

If her role is open to question, that goes double for Britain’s National Gallery. There, curator Luke Syson gathered experts to look at the restored painting and then affixed a solid attribution that mightily boosted the gallery’s big 2011 Leonardo show. On camera, one of those experts says she believes the work might be Leonardo’s, but stresses she was never asked to pronounce definitively.

At that point the original owners had something they could sell but found skeptical museums weren’t interested at US$200-million. Only Swiss businessman Yves Bouvier stepped up with US$83-million – and here the documentary takes a detour to explain the freeport storage business that Bouvier ran sheltering movable property for billionaires. Among his clients was Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev, who was furious to eventually discover the markup on the US$127.5-million he paid for the painting, and set out to sue Bouvier into the ground. He need hardly have bothered: When he flipped the painting at Christie’s, which mounted a massive marketing campaign around “the male Mona Lisa,” the hammer went down at a record US$400-million.

Add the commission and that makes US$450-million. It eventually emerged that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was behind the purchase. He later reneged on a promised loan to the 2017 Leonardo exhibition at the Louvre. Some sources have said Louvre curators would not make a firm attribution to Leonardo; in one of several key interviews with journalists, this documentary suggests a different reason.

Amid such unsavoury business deals and dubious professional behaviour – even the disinterested New York critic Jerry Saltz, a vocal detractor, comes across as more enamoured of himself than of the truth – the debate over attribution is the only elevating part of this melodrama. Using a classic example of connoisseurship, Modestini notes that the area above the figure’s mouth, without any clear line delineating the lip from the philtrum, is painted in the same distinctive manner as that of the Mona Lisa. Skeptics, on the other hand, point out that Leonardo was an expert on anatomy yet the figure’s middle finger twists in a way that is physically impossible. They also wonder why such a well-established artist would have picked a wood panel with a big knot – one that eventually produced a long crack that magically disappeared during Modestini’s restoration.

Whatever the experts say, any viewer can observe the large gap between the damaged original and the perfect restoration. Perhaps the only definitive thing one can say about the most expensive painting in the world is that, regardless of who painted it in the 16th century, it is a creature of the 21st.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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