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.