Documentary ‘The Lost Leonardo’ is occasionally blinded by glitz, glamor

Photo of Lost Leonardo
Elk Film/Courtesy

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Grade: 3.0/5.0

The Salvator Mundi turned just about everyone’s head in 2017 when it sold for $450 million to Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and human rights flouter Mohammed bin Salman, making it the most expensive painting sold at an auction. Among those intrigued by the auction is director Andreas Koefoed, whose documentary “The Lost Leonardo” regales the titular painting’s storied past — or at least the parts of its past that can be reconstructed. As some of the film’s subjects explain, the painting might not have been from Leonardo da Vinci’s hand at all. 

The art world is governed by provenances. If a work does not have a complete provenance or there are gaps in the record of its ownership, its authenticity is cast into doubt. The Salvator Mundi has gaping holes in its provenance — not to mention craftsmanship issues as some of the film’s interviewees pluck out. But others aren’t so pessimistic. Dianne Modestini, a leading conservator hired to restore the Salvator Mundi, highlights the similarities between the lips drawn in this painting and the Mona Lisa, a detail she said only the painter could pull off. 

Koefoed’s documentary, however, isn’t here to put those questions to rest. In fact, it’s rarely about art, or the bohemian image of it. What it’s invested in — as a ritzy opening tilt shot staring down the amber lights of New York’s skyline at dusk makes clear — is the wealth of the art world, the shady transactions for glitzy cash mules and the geopolitical jockeying that “The Lost Leonardo,” to varying degrees of success, claims to run the world. Money, according to the film, is power, and art is just the latest vehicle for the rich and their cash.

“The Lost Leonardo” is at times dramatic, nearly chilling and almost always disgusting. It’s full of opulence and mystique — everything from art collectors to intelligence agents — while dropping clues about an industry that one talking head calls “the most unregulated in the world,” behind drugs and sex work. Through it all, the documentary adopts the suspense of a thriller, dangling intrigue about the painting’s past. It adds a hint of danger from the field’s obscure and powerful players and bathes itself in the Salvator Mundi’s hype.

It’s a whirlwind, and is less focused on finding answers than exploring the shadowy world of, for example, free ports and the elite that populate them with art. The film shares that angle with the recent history of the Salvator Mundi, which was purchased in 2005 for $1,175 and, after changing hands a couple times, sold for its record price in 2017 thanks to a marketing campaign by the auction house Christie’s.

The sheer amount of information, often unconnected, that “The Lost Leonardo” throws at us makes our head spin, and could have been condensed. The camera spins, but not chaotically as we do. There are times when the documentary shares a resemblance with “Succession” — classy drone shots around grand buildings with the addition of talking heads in bespoke suits framed in professional lighting. 

Other times, the cinematography lets on to the film’s shortcomings. Like Michael Bay’s “Transformers” films, “The Lost Leonardo” wrestles for our attention with big, bold shots. Here, those gestures, while not as grandiose, still lead us on rather than divulge insight. The film is enthralling, but it wants to overwhelm us, such as when headlines fade across the screen en masse, too busy to read but flashy enough to get lost in. 

Koefoed’s film is too swept into its highfalutin subjects, replicating the image of the elite without tying it together; it reports from the inside without realizing what a step back and a smaller, clearer focus could do. We know the pawns, but “The Lost Leonardo” isn’t reliably attuned to the game it investigates.

At the end of the film, Modestini touches on a point the documentary makes best, as it’s the easiest point to make: “My greatest regret is that it did not go to a museum … of course everyone’s idea of the picture is now formed by mystery and legend and speculation.” The line is the film’s best, honing in on both the Salvator Mundi and the gross game played by the rich. Koefoed is not as eloquent as Modestini, but far flashier.

Contact Dominic Marziali at [email protected].