This discovery is where “The Lost Leonardo,” a new documentary from director Andreas Koefoed, starts on its complex journey, ultimately rendering a portrait of art criticism, ambiguities and the corrupting influence of greed when certain people in certain rooms decide something is worth a great deal of money.
The ensuing scramble of restorers, middlemen, government agents, the credulous and the skeptics could have been overwhelming, but the film handles its many threads deftly. Part of this is thanks to its brisk, thriller-like pace, which keeps momentum going and cuts through potentially heady material. This is a significant boon when recounting years of history, conflict and commerce in a way that prevents the information from becoming too much.
A documentary investigating a story that’s already been in the news requires new insight or merit to add anything new to the conversation, and the strength of the film is in its interviews. Through these conversations, the film traces the recent history of the “Salvator Mundi,” through the hands it’s been passed down in, whether they belong to characters who are eccentric or greedy or amazed.
One notable figure is Swiss businessman Yves Bouvier, whom we first meet, delightfully, perched atop a unicycle. Soon enough, his involvement in the story of the painting is revealed to be part of what has come to be known as “the Bouvier Affair” — an art scandal, involving international lawsuits and accusations of fraud, that is too complicated to relate in the scope of this review.
But the documentary finds its emotional center in one person seemingly uninterested in maximizing earning potential: Dianne Modestini, the conservator who restored the “Salvator Mundi” after centuries of neglect and damage. She is a delightful woman with an earnest love and reverence for the work of the old masters.
However, the film doesn’t spare her from its critical eye; part of the controversy surrounding whether the “Salvator Mundi” is a bona fide Leonardo lies in the allegation that her restoration work overstepped conventional boundaries, turning the painting into more of a Modestini than a Leonardo.
It’s an example of exactly the kind of ambiguity that runs throughout “The Lost Leonardo.” Value requires a sense of certainty, built from critical and professional consensus. But centuries of indignities in transit and maintenance have eroded any definitive certainty about authorship. One particularly interesting thread in the movie involves the conditions of the paintings’ travel as it ratchets upward in value
The work’s provenance doesn’t offer much information as to its authenticity, leaving the painting itself as the only major clue as to how it came about and who painted it. This doesn’t seem out of place in the thriller-like unfolding of the story, with corners and patches of the painting taking the place of forensic evidence. A thumb here, a corner of a mouth there: The trained eyes of the film’s experts see these details as revelations, and give the viewer insight into the foundations of their opinions. However, this itself provides a clearer sense of just how unclear it all is. How confident would you be in believing an interpretation of a half-centimeter of paint, more than 500 years after it was applied, when tens of millions of dollars are on the line?
For an art documentary, there’s a surprising amount of financial discussion here. The ultimate strength of “The Lost Leonardo” is its inspection of how society reveres and seeks out capital, the real driving force behind the pushes and pulls acted upon the “Salvator Mundi.”
No spoilers here, but the ultimate home of the painting is a particularly fitting indictment of money’s constraints on art — an almost fictional-sounding worst case scenario for an art sale that so many would want to see take place. When Jesus emerges, as Koefoed’s recounting of the saga smartly suggests, the allure — at least for many — is being able to make a truly miraculous profit.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains nude images in art. 96 minutes.