It’s been nearly precisely ten years since the unveiling of Salvator Mundi, the “lost Leonardo” who sparked worldwide awe. The work has had a tumultuous journey since those euphoric days. Salvator Mundi was the most expensive artwork in history, selling for $450 million (£326 million) at auction. However, it was widely regarded as a fraud and eventually disappeared from view. The artwork is currently the focus of Andreas Koefoed’s documentary The Lost Leonardo, which will be released in theaters this week.
“I would be surprised if I went to see this documentary,” Luke Syson says. Syson is the curator who originally exhibited The Saviour of the World, as its title suggests, at the National Gallery’s Leonardo da Vinci blockbuster in 2011. Syson is most likely making the right decision. He appears in the movie, and the way he clams up in the middle of an interview makes him seem like the classic humiliated expert captured on camera.
This fits the tone of the film, which, according to Koefoed, is akin to The Emperor’s New Clothes: haughty institutions and authority claim they’ve found a Leonardo, only to be exposed and ridiculed. Jerry Saltz, an art critic who doesn’t think Salvator Mundi is a good picture, much alone one by Leonardo, performs a showy impersonation of a snooty expert at one point. A German curator challenges the National Gallery’s ethics in displaying and endorsing a painting that was known to be for sale.
But there’s a lot more to The Lost Leonardo than that. The video traces the work’s tangled journey to the current day, while raising every conceivable question about how real this picture of Christ is. We witness ominous images of abandoned freeports where its former owner, Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, is said to have kept it, as well as video of the black-windowed superyacht where some claim it is now held by Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince.
The film tells the story of a contemporary mystery in which the world’s most valuable artwork is used as a pawn in power and money games. There are interviews with shady art dealers, as well as nauseating promotional video from Christie’s during the sale, in which emotional individuals ham it up in front of a picture of a gazing, scary Christ. All of this takes place against a backdrop of bank vaults and even a murder (Bin Salman has been accused of involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi). It makes Salvator Mundi seem to be a fiction concocted to benefit some of the world’s wealthiest and nastiest individuals.
“Poor painting,” says art expert Martin Kemp, who appears in the video. “It is deserving of better.” Dianne Modestini, a restoration specialist from New York University who worked on the long-forgotten, damaged piece before it was put on the market, agrees. “It is truly a tragedy.” But, as Koefoed informs me, there is at least one twist. The Lost Leonardo arrives on the heels of The Saviour for Sale, another documentary. The video, which aired on French television this spring, claimed that the artwork didn’t appear as anticipated in a Louvre display two years ago because the Paris institution conducted its own scientific study and concluded that Leonardo “only contributed” to it. This was generally regarded as the last nail in the coffin for the painting’s genuineness.
Koefoed’s picture, on the other hand, tells a different story. It is said that the Louvre supported Leonardo as the painter of Salvator Mundi. The artwork was never exhibited due of Bin Salman’s vanity: he wanted it to be shown beside the Mona Lisa in order to promote it as “the male Mona Lisa.” The Louvre turned it down. Kemp supports this theory, claiming to have seen the museum’s buried research. He verifies that Leonardo is the author.
Despite this, Koefoed’s film portrays this as a human tale, with Dianne Modestini at its center. The restorer, who has been accused by some of over-restoring a badly damaged original and even of converting a work by a lesser artist into a “Leonardo,” comes off as a passionate and genuine individual. She talks about how working on the restoration helped her deal with the death of her husband, who was also a renowned restorer. The film follows her on her search for retribution, following her to the Louvre in 2019 to view Salvator Mundi again, only to be befuddled by its disappearance. She hears rumors of the Louvre’s concealed decision on the painting’s actual authorship and eventually hunts it out.
When I talked with Modestini, she was just as compassionate as she seems on television, and she was extremely concerned about the prospect of the job taking place on a superyacht. “At first, I thought to myself, ‘No, that’s absurd.’ But then I remembered how big this yacht was. It’s a motel on the water. Because the panel is so delicate, I’d want to know whether it’s safe. It’s not intended to stay in the confines it’s in indefinitely. It’s supposed to be updated every now and then.”
Others, such as Syson and Kemp, who have played important roles in the narrative, are given little shrift. Their voices are only one element of a cacophony of witnesses, the predominant tone of which is enormous skepticism. After all, if this really is a rediscovered work by the greatest artist-scientist of all time, isn’t it a marvel of the world, regardless of the chicanery and cynicism that surrounds it? And, in the end, The Lost Leonardo comes to the conclusion that this is most likely the case.
If this is the case, those who hailed this obscure piece as a Leonardo were not naïve, let alone dubious. They were absolutely correct. Syson, now the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, tells me the tale that he doesn’t get through in The Lost Leonardo: how, as a young Renaissance specialist at the National Gallery, he made what looked like a once-in-a-lifetime find. It all began with an old-fashioned slide presented to him by his supervisor, he recalls. “As an art historian at a big institution, you get sent stuff,” he adds. “Most of the time, the theory that this is by X – especially if it’s Leonardo, Raphael, or Michelangelo – will be completely insane.”
Syson was interested when National Gallery director Nicholas Penny provided a transparency of this potential Leonardo. He traveled to New York in order to research the artwork. It was something unique, he and Penny agreed.
He explains, “We were aware that it was owned by a consortium of dealers.” “So the question became: was the scholarly and public interest strong enough to justify [displaying] the photograph?” This was balanced against “the risk of appearing to support something we knew would become significantly more valuable with a National Gallery imprimatur.” What we decided to do was ask a small number of Leonardo scholars to see whether our judgment was supported by theirs – and, if any substantial question was raised, to withdraw.”
As a result, some of the world’s foremost Leonardo specialists were summoned to a brightly lighted studio in London to ponder the Messiah. He claims, “We weren’t ‘authenticating’ the picture.” “It wasn’t about putting it up for sale. It was nothing more than a case of due diligence.” Kemp was one of the specialists who helped Syson get the consensus he desired. “There were concerns about condition,” Syson adds, “but my understanding was that those experts thought they were looking at the lost original Salvator Mundi that we knew existed.”
It felt like a clear enough consensus judgment for Syson to follow his gut, hang it in the exhibition, and write an impassioned catalogue article proclaiming Salvator Mundi a rediscovered Leonardo.
Any genuine explanation of human motivation gets buried in the debate that currently surrounds every element of Salvator Mundi. Why did experts fall in love with this artwork so quickly? If they were simply the elite monsters depicted by hostile witnesses, it was most likely a toxic mix of hubris and conceit.
But, even before he tells me, I already know why Syson was so enthusiastic about Salvator Mundi: because its strong, sharp picture of Christ matched the nearly mystical Leonardo his exhibition was supposed to portray. Syson intended to “rescue him from pure science” by focusing on his religious artwork rather than his materialist notes. Leonardo da Vinci was not just the most famous artist of all time, but he was also one of the first scientists to dissect corpses in order to learn anatomy, to study bird flight in order to replicate it with his own flying contraption, and to collect and properly understand fossils. Some people find his scientific annotations more interesting than his artwork. So you can understand why Syson thought Salvator Mundi was a gift from God: after all, it was evidence that he believed. Syson asks aloud, “What is he saying here?” “That I can see Christ’s face – and that I can make it present. His Christ has an unearthly, extraterrestrial presence.”
Kemp, on the other hand, has done more than others to investigate Leonardo’s “pure science.” He has figured out what he views as the cohesive system of thinking underlying what seem to be nearly random, chaotic jottings on hundreds of surviving notebook pages since releasing his first study of the Tuscan polymath’s thoughts and art in 1981.
Kemp, on the other hand, believes in the religious force of Salvator Mundi. He claims that Leonardo da Vinci was not an atheist. “It’s a religious painting,” says the narrator. As a result, it supports his hypothesis that as Leonardo grew older, he became increasingly aware of a “prime mover.” For him, Salvator Mundi has the spirituality of late Leonardo’s masterpieces. “These are ineffable paintings,” says the artist.
Unlike Syson, Kemp is content to remain in The Lost Leonardo. He describes it as “an amazing parade of grotesque characters.” “Only the wrongness of their opinions matches the size of their egos.” He goes on to say that Salvator Mundi has become a target for every art world pseud: “As long as someone can make a provocative statement and make it sound good, accuracy isn’t a concern.”
In some ways, it’s surprising that the Emeritus Professor of the History of Art at Oxford bothers to share the screen with these “grotesques,” but what strikes me about Kemp’s consistent arguments that Salvator Mundi is by Leonardo is how he’s attempting to share a deeper understanding of the genius’s thought process. When he talks about “hair painting,” where he’s creating “what I call the physics of hair, like the physics of water,” it reminds me of Leonardo’s spiraling wave paintings. This isn’t just about a picture; it’s about the mind of a genius.
Modestini, who has spent more time than anybody gazing into Salvator Mundi’s eyes, also gets a sense of Leonardo’s enormous, dark intellect. She acknowledges that the work is very mystical, but she does not think it is orthodox. “Perhaps it isn’t his Christian confession. When it comes to portraying Jesus, there are certain guidelines to follow. He’s meant to be sporting a beard. He’s also not meant to be that frightening. We have a one-on-one connection with him, therefore he’s meant to love us. In this image, however, no one has a personal connection with the divine. This is a deity that just exists. He’s all-powerful, distant, unconcerned about human people, and he’s in charge of the whole cosmos.”
So this is a subversive and heretical work? That sounds like the Leonardo I’m familiar with and admire. Until she sees the Louvre report, Modestini seems defeated in her quest for the truth about the missing artwork on television. “They accepted it wholeheartedly, with no reservations. Various writers dispute on the year, but there’s no such thing as, ‘Well, maybe this section is by…’” “The Louvre had no reason to produce a false report,” Kemp says. They would have been in serious danger if they had done so.”
Given Leonardo’s two sides, it’s somewhat ironic that science, in the shape of the Louvre’s technical study, seems to have provided a definitive solution to the $450 million issue. That makes The Lost Leonardo’s unsettling tale of riches and power all the more frightening. Its destiny would be irrelevant if it was a forgery. Since the fire at Windsor Castle, where the Queen maintains her Leonardo sketches, I’ve believed that his works should be preserved as human treasures in some sort of Unesco vault. Instead, over the last five centuries, they have served as adornments for kings and billionaires. A superyacht, like a fire-prone British castle, seems an unlikely location to store Leonardo da Vinci masterpieces. These paintings are much too valuable to be used to simply adorn the Windsor or Saud mansions.