On the surface, a documentary about the thrilling world of art sales might not exactly come across as a wild rollercoaster ride of excitement. The Lost Leonardo largely succeeds because it circumvents expectations of a staid narrative about the most expensive painting ever sold at auction instead of diving into murkier waters. What is the function of art, and what is its value? If its worth is not intrinsic and instead reliant on fallible people to determine, does it then lose something of the divine, becoming no more than any other commodity traded between the extraordinarily wealthy? The Lost Leonardo is a clever exploration of this juxtaposition of art and commerce, beginning with the straightforward story of a painting considered a lost work of famed Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci, then evolving into much, much more.
In auction houses around the world, opportunistic connoisseurs go through endless inventories with a fine-tooth comb, looking for the paintings that were poorly assessed and thus listed for a great deal less than they’re worth, trying to find a bargain. In 2008, a badly damaged painting called the Salvator Muni was discovered at an auction house in New Orleans and seemed to fit the bill. It was considered a copy of a da Vinci painting, likely painted within a generation or two by another artist influenced by da Vinci. Therefore, it was much less valuable than a painting by da Vinci himself or one of his direct students.
But there was something strange about this painting, and it piqued the interest of two art buyers, who purchased and immediately brought it to a renowned NYC restoration expert. After working on it, she began to notice little quirks in the painting that convinced her that this Salvador Mundi was actually an original work of da Vinci. Thus, for all practical purposes, it was essentially priceless. But questions of the Salvator Mundi’s authenticity lingered, even as it went on a worldwide publicity tour and eventually sold for an astronomical sum. Was the Salvator Mundi an actual work by da Vinci, or was it just in the best interests of everyone involved to believe it to be so?
The Lost Leonardo is an indictment of the cynical commodification of art as just another financial asset for the ultrarich. The entire concept of the monetary value of art is all illusory, a game of smoke in mirrors; the only true value of a painting is what someone is willing to pay for it. And in the case of the Salvator Mundi, it isn’t even about the painting itself, but rather the mythos that can be engineered around it. Who cares if it’s actually a da Vinci if it can still be marketed as one?
The film also explores how the purchasing of art has changed over the years. In the 19th and 20th centuries, even if you bought a high-value painting primarily as a financial investment, you might still expect to hang it on the wall of your country estate and show it off to guests. But among many modern-day oligarchs, art has become one of the most conveniently liquid of assets. It can be transported out of a country easily at the first sign of political instability; it isn’t linked to any national currency and can withstand economic turbulence.
And in the case of foreign leaders, it can be used as a very appealing means of wielding soft power. If you hail from a developing country, for example, owning an exceptionally rare Renaissance painting could signal to the world your cultural sophistication. And lending said painting out to another country as a gesture of goodwill could come with the implicit understanding of a reciprocal arrangement: I did something nice for you, now you do something nice for me. All of this creates a disappointing reality where precious art is kept locked away in bulletproof vaults as part of an oil magnate’s investment portfolio rather than a cultural touchstone that should be seen, experienced, and appreciated.
In delving into this particular case, The Lost Leonardo probes the seedy underbelly of the art world, where genuine creative appreciation collides with more cynical commercialism. It questions the aesthetic and historical value of art for art’s sake instead of the monetary value we ascribe to it. Over the course of the film, it peels back layer after layer of this very complicated issue, and it’s to the credit of The Lost Leonardo that it manages to be about so much more than just a particularly interesting art auction of a particularly rare painting.