Will the Mystery of ‘Salvator Mundi’ Ever Be Solved?

A new documentary, “The Lost Leonardo,” explores the dramatic history of a purported Renaissance masterpiece

Promotional banner for "The Lost Leonardo"
The documentary plays out much like a spy thriller, interrogating the art world and the enigmatic figures who populate it. Sony Pictures Classics

Questions regarding the authenticity of Salvator Mundi, a $450 million painting of Jesus widely attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, have dogged the artwork since its record-breaking sale at Christie’s in November 2017.

Now, reports Pete Hammond for Deadline, a new documentary titled The Lost Leonardo is wading into the debate with a compelling account of not just the painting’s past, but “the underbelly of the art world: the agendas of its dealers and institutions and the truths behind what could be the first true discovery of a da Vinci in over a century.”

Danish director Andreas Koefoed spent years creating the film, tracing Salvator Mundi’s journey by interviewing Leonardo experts, art critics, curators and dealers. As he tells Jake Coyle of the Associated Press (AP), “You have this romantic idea of art as something pure and a beautiful expression of human beings through history, and then it meets this very cynical, capitalistic world. It’s an explosive cocktail together.”

The Lost Leonardo begins with a pair of art dealers who bought the painting for $1,175 at a 2005 estate sale in New Orleans. Soon after, writes Glenn Kenny for the New York Times, Alexander Parish, a self-proclaimed “sleeper hunter” who keeps an eye out for catalog mistakes, and his financial partner, Robert Simon, brought their acquisition to art historian and restorer Dianne Dwyer Modestini for evaluation.

Modestini began cleaning the work by removing layers of caked-on varnish and overpainting from the depiction of Christ, who gazes at the viewer as he raises his right hand in a blessing and cradles a crystal orb in his left. When Modestini reached Jesus’ mouth, she noticed striking similarities to the lips of Leonardo’s most famed work, the Mona Lisa, notes Variety’s Owen Gleiberman.

THE LOST LEONARDO | Official Trailer (2021)

“It’s not just a painting. It’s more than that,” Modestini, who maintains a website detailing the restoration process, tells the AP. “It’s an object infused with power. That sounds a little weird and corny, but I believe that.”

Between 2007 and 2010, Leonardo experts from around the world studied Salvator Mundi in hopes of determining its authenticity. According to Christie’s, these scholars reached a “broad consensus” that the work was a genuine da Vinci—“the single original painting from which the many copies and student versions depend.”

The restored artwork made its debut at London’s National Gallery in 2011, sparking intense scrutiny and debate. As Daniel Dumas notes for Esquire, Leonardo’s surviving oeuvre is limited, with eight works “unequivocally” attributed to the Old Master and another nine widely attributed to him.

After Salvator Mundi was shown in London, its value skyrocketed. In 2013, art dealer Yves Bouvier purchased the canvas for $80 million, then promptly resold it to Russian businessman Dmitry Rybolovlev for a marked-up $127 million.

Some of the key players in the art world saga—including the National Gallery, the Louvre and Christie’s—declined to participate in the film. But others, like Modestini, agreed to be interviewed.

To make sense of the firestorm surrounding the painting, Koefoed spoke to an array of experts. According to Variety, one scholar featured in the documentary proclaims, “Everybody wanted it to be a Leonardo. And perhaps it is a Leonardo.” Another adds, “This is simply a matter of economics, when you boil down to it. And greed. Basic human foibles. Money.”

Jerry Saltz, a Pulitzer Prize–winning art critic at New York magazine who has previously expressed “big doubts” about the work’s authenticity, simply says, “It’s not even a good painting!”

Salvator Mundi, likely by Leonardo da Vinci, shows Jesus Christ raising his right hand and holding a glass orb in his left
The Lost Leonardo doesn't take a definitive stance on the painting's authenticity. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Despite the ongoing controversy, many scholars have come to believe that Salvator Mundi­ is, in fact, an Old Master painting. How much of the work was painted by Leonardo himself, rather than an assistant, remains a point of contention.

As Christie’s notes, Leonardo created the piece around 1500, possibly for Louis XII of France. By 1625, Charles I of England had acquired the painting, but following his execution in 1649, it seemingly disappeared. Salvator Mundi only reappeared in the early 20th century, when it was sold as a work by Leonardo follower Bernardino Luini. Later art historians credited the canvas to one of Leonardo’s assistants, Antonio Boltraffio.

Salvator Mundi was scheduled to make its public debut at the Louvre Abu Dhabi in September 2018. But the museum unexpectedly canceled the unveiling, and the painting hasn’t been seen in public since. The work’s reported buyer, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, was set to loan the work to the Louvre for its blockbuster 2019 Leonardo exhibition, but negotiations fell through after the French museum declined to show Salvator Mundi alongside the Mona Lisa, as David D. Kirkpatrick and Elaine Sciolino wrote for the New York Times in April.

Interestingly, a confidential Louvre report first revealed by the Art Newspaper’s Alison Cole in March 2020 appears to offer further confirmation of the work’s authenticity.

“The results of the historical and scientific study presented in this publication allow us to confirm the attribution of the work to Leonardo da Vinci,” wrote the Louvre’s president, Jean-Luc Martinez, in the report’s preface, per the Times.

The Lost Leonardo doesn’t take a definitive side in the ongoing debate. Instead, the documentary plays out much like a thriller, interrogating the art world and the enigmatic figures who populate it.

“It proves a point of the story that the truth is somehow lost in all this,” Koefoed tells the AP. “There’s so much at stake, so many power interests, so many money interests that the truth disappears. Not only do we have a lost painting, we also have lost the truth somehow.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.