‘The Lost Leonardo’ Review: Art, Money and Oligarchy


This documentary about the painting “Salvator Mundi” packs the fascination and wallop of an expertly executed fictional thriller.

Robert Simon, left, and Alexander Parish in the documentary “The Lost Leonardo.”
Robert Simon, left, and Alexander Parish in the documentary “The Lost Leonardo.”Credit...Adam Jandrup/Sony Pictures Classics
Glenn Kenny
The Lost Leonardo
NYT Critic's Pick
Directed by Andreas Koefoed
Documentary
PG-13
1h 36m

To paraphrase John Lennon, Leonardo da Vinci is a concept by which world civilization (such as it is) measures artistic mastery.

“The Lost Leonardo,” a documentary directed by the Danish filmmaker Andreas Koefoed, is a disquieting confirmation of this idea. It’s the story of how a painting purchased for a little over $1,000 was soon identified — if not wholly authenticated — as a Leonardo, and eventually wound up in the hands of a Saudi oligarch who spent more than $400 million on it. Among other things, this picture freshly demonstrates that a conventionally structured documentary can pack the fascination and wallop of an expertly executed fictional thriller.

The globe-trotting narrative begins with Alexander Parish, a self-described “sleeper hunter” — an art buyer who looks for catalog mistakes — purchasing the painting “Salvator Mundi” from a New Orleans dealer. Working with the renowned art historian and restorer Dianne Modestini, Parish and his financial partner Robert Simon determine they have a Leonardo on their hands. And so the movie moves from “The Art Game” to “The Money Game.”

Into this narrative, “The Lost Leonardo” weaves coherent mini-treatises on restoration, art dealerships, free ports, the true nature of the auctioneering business and more. The art critic Jerry Saltz blusters that the painting is not just not a Leonardo, but that it’s garbage. The writer Kenny Schachter is more considered and rueful in expressing his doubts. Footage of spectators reacting to the painting suggests that one can produce a Pavlovian response to an artwork merely by labeling it a Leonardo. The movie also features F.B.I. and C.I.A. figures, the New York Times investigative journalist David Kirkpatrick and Leonardo DiCaprio.

It’s a dizzying tale. And whether or not you believe “Salvator Mundi” to be a real Leonardo, it’s ultimately a disgusting one.

The Lost Leonardo
Rated PG-13 for language. In English and French with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes. In theaters.