The Lost Leonardo: Hobbies of the filthy rich

C art documentary
Directed by Andreas Koefoed

Was the Salvator Mundi painted by Leonardo da Vinci? Or one of his students? Or was it painted by someone who’s name is lost to history? But the possibility that da Vinci may have painted it has turned the picture into the most expensive painting in history, being sold at more than $450 million dollars in 2017.

But who would have shelled out that much money? I can’t tell you – that’s a spoiler. But let me assure you that it was someone dripping with cash and power, and who you probably hate (no, not Trump).

Movies about paintings – especially documentaries – have a problem from the start. A painting is static; cinema is about movement (that’s why they’re called movies). To make it worse, this film sticks almost entirely to one particular painting. And as one of the interviewees puts it, it’s not really that good a painting. It certainly wasn’t in a good condition when it surfaced at a New Orleans auction and sold for $1,175.

The closest thing to a protagonist in Lost Leonardo is painting restorer Dianne Modestini. After considerable examination, she became convinced that Leonardo himself painted the Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World – in other words, Jesus). Not everyone agrees with her. A lot of prestige and money is involved.

I would have liked the film better if director Andreas Koefoed took some time showing how Modestini does her magic. The painting came to her in horrible condition, but she restored it…up to a point. Some of her detractors say the painting is more Modestini than da Vinci.

But the film isn’t really about restoring one particular painting. As one of the interviewees points out, if it turns out to be from an unknown, the original $1,175 price tag was about the right price. But if it turns out to be from one of da Vinci’s students, the price would go up exponentially. And if it turns out that the great artist painted it with his own hands, it goes up exponentially again.

Inevitably, The Lost Leonardo becomes a documentary about the filthy rich. They buy and sell art as investments. Airports have special warehouses with extreme security, where you can store your physical assets (if you can afford this sort of treatment). Because they’re in airports and legally not in any country, none of this is taxable.

After a while watching the movie, you may get tired of rich people talking about their wealth. Thankfully, one of these art dealers, Robert Simon, has at least an acidic sense of humor. When he speaks, you often laugh. But the other 24 aren’t as entertaining.

The movie gets better near the end, when we discover the true villain of the story. And if you really want to find who now owns the Salvator Mundi, go the third paragraph of the Salvator Mundi Wikepedia page.

The film opens Friday at the Embarcadero Center. Next Friday, it will also be available at the Shattuck, the Rafael, and the AMC Saratoga 14.