Is the “Salvator Mundi”—a painting that was painstakingly restored after being discovered in a severely damaged and painted-over state—really a lost work of the great Leonardo da Vinci? A Saudi Arabian prince who bid $450 million for it would certainly like to think it is.
“Rediscovered” back in 2005, it was purchased for near-nothing by art enthusiasts who simply had a hunch there might be something more to what appeared to be a damaged copy of the legendary long-lost work. The painting was slowly cleaned up and restored by Dianne Dwyer Modestini. As Modestini began removing layers of paint and getting down to the original work, she noticed some techniques—including work around the figure’s lips similar to the work around the mouth of the Mona Lisa—that convinced her she was looking at the real deal.
The Lost Leonardo, directed by Andreas Koefoed, speaks with many of the figures, including Modestini, who contributed to the transformation of the painting from a marred, closet find into the most expensive painting in the world.
Mind you, the painting Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Fahhan al-Saud (jeez, that’s a long name) forked over close to a half-billion dollars for might not actually be a da Vinci. While some experts have authenticated its origins, many still have doubts. And even if da Vinci did put a brush to this piece of wood hundreds of years ago, and this painting is part of that result, much of what is on display now is work by Modestini. Very little of it is the original depiction.
Yet the mystique surrounding its origins, various dealings back and forth with mounting prices, a marketing campaign that included Leonardo DiCaprio staring in awe, and an eventual record-setting auction all seem prove that 100% authenticity doesn’t seem to matter in the art world. Koefoed’s film does an excellent job of depicting the drama and intrigue behind the building of a massive production to make big money on something that might not be legit.
If you’ve just glanced at stories on the painting through the years, you probably thought the painting had been deemed legit, and that’s why it went for so much at auction. The many facts revealed in this documentary paint an entirely different picture. (OK … sorry. Let’s move on). A series of da Vinci copies I drew for an art class in college may be more legitimate than that painting. Hey, I’m selling! A mere $5,000, and they are yours!
The painting is currently in storage somewhere awaiting a permanent installation in a gallery. The prince (I’m not typing that name again) teased the Louvre with a chance to display the piece as part of a da Vinci exhibition, then pulled out at the last second. “Salvator Mundi” hasn’t been seen by others in years.
The subjects on both sides of the argument in The Lost Leonardo make convincing points. Modestini’s observations about the lip and other traits of the painting make it seem likely it could be real. Other facts point to it being a fake or having very little participation from the master. The film doesn’t give a definitive answer because there is no definitive answer. But it doesn’t matter: As The Lost Leonardo shows, people with power and money say it’s a da Vinci.
The Lost Leonardo is now playing at the Camelot Theatres at the Palm Springs Cultural Center (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs) and the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert).