Greetings again from the darkness. This is an unusual documentary from Andreas Keofoed. The first part examines the attempts to solve the origin mystery of a discovered painting, while the second half takes us inside the mysterious money side of the collectible art world. Both mysteries are fascinating on their own, and they blend together to track the 15 year history of a painting that may have come from the brushes of Leonardo da Vinci more than 600 years ago. Or it may not have.
We first meet Alexander Parish, a self-described “Sleeper Hunter” – one always on the lookout to purchase undervalued artwork. “That’s what I do”, states Parish. He’s the one who found the Salvator Mundi painting at a 2005 New Orleans art auction. He and his partner, Robert Simon, paid $1175 for the painting, though they had no idea what they were getting. Director Keofoed spoils any surprise, by delivering an opening credit graphic that traces the painting’s international travels over the next dozen years by itemizing the sales: $1175 in 2005, $83 million in 2013, $127.5 million in 2013, and $450 million in 2017.
Part 1: The Art Game focuses on the examination, investigation, and restoration of the painting. On one hand we have restorer Dianne Modestini meticulously working her magic to discover what she believes is without question, a da Vinci painting. On the other hand we have noted art critic Jerry Salz who is less skeptical and more mocking in his conclusion that not only is it not from da Vinci, it’s not even a ‘good’ painting. A great deal of effort goes into formulating the painting’s provenance – the family tree of ownership. This is crucial to the process in establishing whether it belongs with one of the 15 known Leonardo paintings, or perhaps, at best, from the work of his pupils.
Beginning with Part 2: The Art Game, the film shifts focus from the origin of ‘The Male Mona Lisa’ (as it was dubbed) to its sale and subsequent flip, and the associated investigation by the CIA into possible money laundering. It’s at this point where we meet Yves Bouvier and learn of his purchase and flip to Russian Oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev, who is none too happy once he puts the pieces of the transaction together. The use of Freeports by the rich is also discussed. These high-security fortresses allow the owners to avoid taxes by maintaining a state of “in transit”. It’s also in this section where the role of Christie’s auction house comes into play and we learn of the brilliant hype/marketing of ‘The Lost da Vinci’.
When spending $450 million on an object, most of us would likely verify the item’s authenticity. But then most of us aren’t the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Part 3: The Global Game details how the authenticity of the painting might not even matter when the purpose is to move or protect money. A “dark transaction” allows the purchase to remain anonymous, and when the identity is discovered, it’s clear that the art world is now about money, not art.
For some purists, the question of authenticity remains for the Salvator Mundi, and restorer Modestini remains haunted by her conclusion. The art of the deal is clearly less about the art and more about the deal. Leonardo da Vinci’s legacy is not impacted by this debate, but the impact of the painting on many other folks is undeniable … and it has served a purpose as an eye-opener and economics lesson for the rest of us.
Opens in select theaters on August 27, 2021