The Lost Leonardo: a story of power and greed

The bizarre story of the Salvator Mundi reveals a tale of cynicism and worship.

A still from the documentary “The Lost Leonardo” (2021) directed by Andreas Kofoed, which tells the story of the long-lost painting by Leonardo Da Vinci. Sony Pictures Classics

For those not familiar with it, the art world does not seem to conceal creative actions and shenanigans that can often surpass what goes on inside a stock exchange like Wall Street. In fact, this domain, where study, research, and culture should be the main actors and threads, has been invaded by speculations that can sometimes be entertaining, sometimes not.

“The Lost Leonardo” (2021) directed by Andreas Koefoed, which tells the story behind the most expensive painting ever sold, at $450 million, deals with these different aspects of the art system: the complicated relationships between major museums, dealers, billionaire collectors, critics, curators and auction houses, in an overwhelming way and for a mixed audience, whether experts or neophytes of this complex and enthralling world.

At a time when fake news and fake people are rampant – as in the popular Netflix series “Inventing Anna” – certainly a terrain such as that of the United States can only prepare for media and economic battles based on ignorance of content, on the lack of philological investigation of an asset and, of course, on business.

From this point of view, the documentary is intriguing and sharp. Two American ‘sleeper hunters,’ or seekers of long-lost art masterpieces ‘sleeping’ hidden from the world, as dealers Alexander Paris and Robert Simon describe themselves, discover in New Orleans what might be – in terms of the historical period to which it seems to belong, subject, and style – a painting by Leonardo Da Vinci that had been lost for hundreds of years.

They bought it for $1.175 and, in 2008, handed it over to a trusted restorer, Ms. Dianne Modestini. The conservator cleaned the most recent layers of retouches, its distorted and exaggerated colours, and added the many missing parts in the style of Leonardo, apparently giving it the 16th-century atmosphere that the Mona Lisa exudes. Because it is precisely this model that is called into play, from this moment on, the painting, titled “Salvator Mundi,” or Saviour of the World, is often referred to by the press as “the male Mona Lisa.”

Esteemed restorer and art expert Dianne Modestini examining the painting of the “Salvator Mundi,” controversially attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. © Dianne Modestini.

The marketing attitude is already very present. Diane is convinced that it is by Leonardo. She recognises the missing stroke between the upper lip and the nose of Christ, as in the well-known Gioconda. She is the first professional to give such attribution. And many others are convinced too, including the curator of the National Gallery in London, who, perhaps to attract more visitors, includes it in an exhibit in 2011 as an authentic Leonardo.

The more cynical and careful critics like Jerry Saltz don’t buy it. Mr. Saltz, the notorious critic of the New York Magazine, enjoys observing from the outside this privileged salon where a Leonardo begins to pass from hand to hand, from owner to owner.

And then there is the interesting case of Yves Bouvier – a Swiss dealer and founder of the largest free port in Geneva, a de-facto tax-heaven for goods hidden by wealthy businessmen from all over the world – and the Russian oligarch collector Dmitrij Rybolovlev, the first proprietor of the painting.

Mr. Bouvier was found guilty of fraud and conspiracy to money laundering. According to Rybolovlev, Bouvier defrauded him of more than $1 billion, often reselling the paintings within days at mark-ups of up to 70%. The dispute over Rybolovlev’s collection of 38 paintings generated civil and criminal litigation in at least five jurisdictions worldwide.

Art, as we have known for about two decades, is one of the greatest safe-haven asset. “A painting can’t be seized,” says in the documentary Bruce Lamarche, a business partner of Mr. Bouvier. “A house can. You can’t hide it.”

“The game of art,” “the money game,” and “the global game” are three of the titles of the five chapters of the documentary. The words ‘game’ and ‘money’ are recurrent and valid for all intents and purposes, and the director knows this.

“The Lost Leonardo” is not about art, Leonardo, or culture. The work by Da Vinci is just an opportunity to talk about a wider economic story: a cautionary tale about greed and power.

The painting received global attention on the story of its authentication. Many experts still have doubts about who the author of the work is. © Dianne Modestini.

The ‘game’ is maze-like and it implicates some of the most powerful men in the world. In the last chapter of the documentary, the story becomes more intricate and the painting is at the centre of a delicate diplomatic relationship between French President Emmanuel Macron and Saudi Arabia, the current owner of the painting, according to the New York Times. Its inclusion in the great retrospective organised by the Louvre for the 500th anniversary of the death of the Tuscan genius is at stake, unveiling the political role a 500-year-old painting can play.

Because art and culture – just think of Napoleon’s attitude in raiding masterpieces from the greatest Italian cities – are a powerful means of exchange and power. Hence the absolute protagonist of the story of the ‘male Mona Lisa’ becomes Mohammed Bin Salman – or MBS as he is dubbed, almost like an American rapper, by some of the interviewees. The ruler of Saudi Arabia has understood how a painting, such as the one attributed to Leonardo, can make him even more powerful in the eyes of the Western world.

The painting, after all, is his. In the end, Bin Salman doesn’t lend it to the exhibition at the Louvre, engaging in a political and economic discourtesy to the French, for a work that the director of the Parisian museum appears to have authenticated with a publication, that it was later withdrawn and destroyed.

After all, as Jerry Saltz puts it: “power is never neutral.” And for marketing, fame, and money – a lot of money – even a controversial work found in a basement in New Orleans can become the lost Leonardo.

“The Lost Leonardo” is released on 21 March in cinemas.

Rossella Farinotti is an Italian art critic, curator and writer, the co-author of the film encyclopedia Il Farinotti, contributor to Flash Art Italia, Exibart, Mymovies and Zero, and the author of “il Quadro che visse due volte” (Morellini Publishing, 2013).