In 2005, “sleeper hunter" Alexander Parrish thought he’d found an undervalued painting in New Orleans and, with dealer Robert Simon, put together $1,110 to purchase the Renaissance-era portrait of Jesus.
Twelve years later, that painting sold at auction for a record $450 million -- for it was “The Lost Leonardo,” the first painting that could be attributed to Leonardo da Vinci in more than a century.
The tale of how “Salvador Mundi," found its way into the hands of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is captivatingly told in “The Lost Leonardo,” a documentary that grips like a thriller as it takes the painting from the cardboard box in which it was initially shipped through conservation, an art scandal, freeports where ultrawealthy collectors shelter their artwork from taxes to auction at Christie’s.
It does so through interviews with many of the principals involved, from Parrish and Simon, who were stunned when they learned from conservator Diane Modestini, based on the transition between the upper and lower lip, the painting could be a da Vinci, perhaps taken from the British royal collection in the 1800s.
Modestini appears throughout the film, telling the story of the painting's conservation -- she almost repainted the whole thing -- defending her work and the attribution to da Vinci. That attribution is also defended by the National Gallery curator, who called the painting a da Vinci for a 2011 exhibition.
Others, including art critic Jerry Saltz, call the painting a fake, given its attribution by the greedy in the art world who hoped to, and did, make millions from it.
Most of that is covered in “The Art Game,” the first half of the picture. Then comes the “The Money Game” which details how the price for the painting jumped from the $80 million paid to Simon, Parrish and their dealer partner to the mindboggling $450 million.
Without giving away the details that give the picture its thriller sensibility, suffice it to say it’s a combination of an overpricing scam, “dark money” laundered through the freeports, an incensed Russian oligarch and a brilliant marketing and sales campaign that hooked the Crown Prince and one other bidder.
Danish filmmaker Andreas Koefoed tells that story with enlightening style, folding television news reports, testimony from art and investigative journalists, CIA and FBI agents and footage of the painting at various times and places into a propulsive narrative that reveals, in the end, a swampy, morally compromised world ruled by greed and cash -- all dependent on the authenticity of the painting.
Going into “The Lost Leonardo,” I was dubious that the “Salvador Mundi” was, in fact, a Leonardo, leaning toward the explanation that might have been from the “school of" or a very well-done forgery.
After seeing the movie -- and I’m deliberately not divulging a key piece of information that comes late in the film -- my mind is almost changed. “Salvador Mundi” very likely is a Leonardo.
Why anyone would pay $450 million to own it is an entirely different question.
Reach the writer at 402-473-7244 or email@example.com. On Twitter @KentWolgamott