Article Thumbnail

A Long-Lost da Vinci Sold for $450 Million. But Is It Real?

Director Andreas Koefoed talks about his riveting documentary ‘The Lost Leonardo’ and why the art world wants so badly to believe that a beaten-up painting found in New Orleans is the work of a centuries-old Italian master

In 2005, a man named Alexander Parish bought a painting. The New York art lover is a sleeper hunter — individuals who purchase undervalued paintings in the hopes of selling them for a profit — and this portrait of Jesus he’d found in a New Orleans auction made him wonder: Could this be what I think it is? Is this possibly a lost work from Leonardo da Vinci? Teaming up with art dealer Robert Simon, who suspected the same thing, Parish snagged the portrait for $1,175. Sleeper hunters speculate all the time, but the potential upside for this painting was potentially massive. Salvator Mundi has long been one of the world’s most coveted artworks: an infamous “one that got away” painting from the revered Renaissance master. Da Vinci only has 15 authenticated works to his name, so for centuries historians, enthusiasts and treasure-hunters like Parish have sought the long-fabled Salvator Mundi. Whoever could track it down — and prove it was painted by Leonardo — would be very, very rich. 

The documentary The Lost Leonardo starts with Parish’s discovery and then chronicles what happened from there. It’s a tale full of intrigue and captivating characters — there’s no shortage of colorful personalities and healthy egos on display — as the painting changes hands and increasingly larger sums of money are doled out. (In 2013 alone, Salvator Mundi sold for $83 million, and then was sold again soon after for $127 million. And that’s before it went up for auction at Christie’s four years later.) 

All the while, though, a nagging question remained: Is this really a da Vinci? But what’s shocking about The Lost Leonardo is how little that concern is raised by the people selling and buying and displaying the painting. As the film makes clear, those who had decided it was real knew it was real — and they weren’t interested in hearing from anyone who raised serious doubts about its authenticity. Sure, maybe it wasn’t painted on the kind of wood that da Vinci would have used. Right, maybe the subject’s hands didn’t resemble da Vinci’s style. And, hey, it’s pretty weird that a centuries-old Italian painting was suddenly uncovered in New Orleans during an estate sale. None of that mattered: Once enough experts declared that the Salvator Mundi was a genuine Leonardo, it was time to publicize and profit off this find.

Danish documentarian Andreas Koefoed has fashioned The Lost Leonardo like a detective story, chronicling the painting’s journey from that Louisiana auction house to its current home on a Saudi yacht while staying focused on the mystery of this painting’s origins. You don’t need to know a thing about the world of fine art to be gripped by the film: What Koefoed sketches vividly is the greed, arrogance and blind certainty that can befall even the smartest individuals. He’s not necessarily arguing that Salvator Mundi isn’t real — as he told me over Zoom last week, he’s not sharing his own opinion about its authenticity — but he is interested in why certain people are so deeply invested in insisting that it is real. (And, as he points out, those people could be right: “It’s impossible to eliminate that possibility,” he says.)

So during our conversation, we didn’t spend much time debating the painting’s authorship. But we did dig into the shady things that go on in the art world, why the FBI took an interest in Salvator Mundi, and how Koefoed feels about the fact that rich people own so many of our greatest masterpieces. 

When I saw The Lost Leonardo, I didn’t necessarily think of it as a true-crime doc. But after a second viewing, I realized that, in a sense, you could consider it as being part of that genre. I’m wondering if true-crime informed the way you conceived the project.

We had the idea that it was a mystery — that it was a kind of art-crime story — but we didn’t really look at other true-crime stories and try to replicate their structure. We spent a lot of time finding our own structure. It was challenging because there were so many details, so many stories within the bigger story that we wanted to tell that had a lot of fascinating elements. The challenge was to get all these stories and cut them down in a way where you got curious — and you got the necessary information — but not stay too long with each. We realized that we needed to have the painting as the main character, and we needed to return to it every [few] minutes in order to keep the feeling of a spine in the story — we could easily dwell on some of the [subjects], who had fascinating backstories, but every time we did that the clock was ticking for us to get back on track.  

One example is the provenance of the painting — where has it been for all these years? For a long time, we couldn’t even touch upon it because it would slow down the story. Another challenge was the story of Dianne Modestini, the lady who restored [Salvator Mundi after Parish found it], who had a fascinating backstory with her husband, who was also a famous restorer and who himself restored a da Vinci — the only one in the U.S. If you [wrote] a book, you would create a chapter for that, but here you only have 30 seconds. So how do you tell that story, get the essence and then move on? 

We spent a lot of time [figuring that out], and we divided the story into three parts, which matches the journey of the painting. We move through the art world in the first act, the financial world of speculation is the second act and then the geopolitical world with the state leaders who use art for their [own] purposes [in the third act]. At some point, we thought of making a series [with] the painting in the middle and then going in-depth with different corners of the story — that would be really fascinating as well, but it would be even more challenging.

Robert Simon (left) and Alex Parish with the (in)famous Salvator Mundi

The documentary doesn’t pretend to have the answer regarding the painting’s authenticity. But after making the film, did you have a gut sense about whether or not it’s real? 

It’s a question that I get a lot, but I decided not to share my own view. One of the ambitions of the film is to make the viewer become a detective and make up their own minds. So if I talk about my opinion, then that would affect that process. But, of course, I’ve been trying to figure it out myself, and I’ve listened to all the different sides. I understand why there is skepticism because there are some heavy arguments [against it being a da Vinci]: It’s a bad piece of wood, the provenance is full of holes. And the fact that da Vinci was a superstar — why would this painting disappear? I understand all this, but then again, the painting might still be a da Vinci — it’s impossible to eliminate that possibility. 

So [the question] remains open and I remain open toward it as well. Maybe someday there will be a resolution. Actually, while making [the documentary], we had hoped that the Louvre would make their final decision and they would do the examination that could maybe reach a definitive conclusion. But then again, if they had done so, people would have started doubting: “Why did they do that? Was that for political reasons? Were they forced to give attribution to Leonardo?” It wouldn’t have ended.

There are many things in The Lost Leonardo that aren’t crimes, but they’re certainly shady — specifically, the fact that so many people and institutions can claim the painting is a da Vinci without having definitive proof. There’s a lot of ethical gray area in the art world — it seems like there needs to be a larger conversation in our society about why that’s allowed to happen.

I totally agree. I mean, I don’t know, actually, how to do it, because I don’t know if it’s possible to create certain rules about how to authenticate a painting. It’s an unwritten rule now that you should have a broader consensus — you should try — but then when people break it, what happens then? They face some criticism, but they still get away with it. 

I don’t know how to implement these rules and who should actually formulate these rules. It’s up to constant discussion, but it’s interesting also because art history isn’t a precise science. I mean, you can have all these different indications by doing examinations — you can interpret paintings in certain ways — but there’s so much that is up to the individual eye, so it will always be a subjective thing. 

While making the film, we were in touch with this couple who had worked at MIT — or, the husband had — and they did this A.I. examination of the Salvator Mundi. They reached the conclusion that the face was by da Vinci, and some of the other parts were by students, but the problem was that they had so few samples of da Vinci paintings because he only painted 15 paintings. And in order to teach the computer how to tell what’s real, and what’s not, you need thousands of samples. But maybe in the future A.I. technology can help us, I don’t know.

Robert King Wittman

Something I learned from The Lost Leonardo: The FBI investigates art sales. It’s a cool little corner of the intelligence community you bring to light. 

It was one of the producers of the film who discovered Robert King Wittman. He invented the office within the FBI that [investigates] art crimes. Apparently, it’s a huge thing — it’s, apparently, kind of easy to make a forgery. He said that he had heard from a prominent museum director that up to 50 percent of art pieces hanging in the museums around the world would have a different author than the label they had. 

That’s wild.

Yeah, I don’t know how factual that is, but it’s kind of mind-blowing. But then again, there’s also this kind of strange notion that today we demand from the old masters that they did the paintings on their own — but in fact, they had workshops where they collaborated a lot. So, if da Vinci painted 20 percent of a painting, what is it then? What if he painted 50? [Some] artists that we see today, they barely touch their artwork themselves — they have a factory — but we consider their art pieces as original and by the one artist. There’s something romantic in our notion about the old masters that they should be on their own doing everything themselves, but the truth is totally different.

The idea that the sales of these paintings may be helping finance criminal activity, like terrorism, was also shocking. 

I’m not sure to what extent that has happened, but I guess [Wittman] must have had some concrete examples. But the thing is, buying a painting at an auction is a very secretive, easy way to transfer big funds. I mean, you can’t just transfer money from one bank account to another without the intelligence [agencies] knowing about it. But until [the FBI] discovered the art market, maybe that was possible through the auctions, because it’s so difficult to put a price on art pieces — if a painting goes for $50 million that was valued for 30 [million], it’s impossible to say if there’s something wrong in that transaction or if it’s just because some buyer was really eager to get that specific painting. And because the whole auction world is very opaque, often you can’t get the information about who actually sold the painting and who actually bought it. It’s very secretive.

That whole world of sleeper hunters like Alexander Parish — they seem like modern-day treasure-hunters. I was curious to hear more about what his life is like.  

It’s not rare that he finds something that has value, but how much profit does he make? This [painting] was definitely his most prominent discovery, but he did [find] a few others that turned out to be by master painters. I can’t tell you the percentage, or the profit he makes, but it happens. He says that the thing is that auction houses get so many paintings that they don’t have the capacity to look at all the paintings to examine them. They don’t have the time — they empty the house of a deceased person, and they have maybe a week to go through it, and then they put it up for auction. That makes it possible to have these mistakes where they didn’t see some [lost masterpiece] in there, and that makes a business for a guy like Alex Parish. Back in the day, he would get all the catalogs from all the auction houses around North America, and he would go through them, he would do research, and then he would go and look at them. Now he does everything on the internet, but he still spends 10 to 12 hours a day doing that. 

In the film, art critic Jerry Saltz, who’s convinced the painting isn’t a da Vinci, talks about how so many people are “going along with the lie” by insisting Salvator Mundi is real. I’m not sure if they’re lying, but it’s certainly advantageous for some entities — like Christie’s — to propagate the idea that the painting is real.

He has a point. But the people who believe, they truly believed it to be a da Vinci — they didn’t think of it as a lie. And maybe it isn’t a lie at all. But they were really convinced [it’s a da Vinci]. 

I think it has to do with a tendency in human beings that we want to believe the fairy tale. It’s much more fun and interesting to believe things to be true than to reject them. [Someone who saw The Lost Leonardo] came to me and said, “Well, the film shows the best and the worst of human beings in a way.” It shows our longing for something authentic — something [that] can reflect our soul. That’s how we use art. But on the other side, it also shows the greed that we can have when we get close to something that’s so precious — something that can change our lives. If we have that within our reach, then we might change the way we look at it and the way we perceive it. We might suddenly become convinced that something is true, which it might not be true. We lose our critical sense. And that’s really interesting.

Throughout The Lost Leonardo, it’s noticeable that the Mundi is often talked about by your interview subjects in terms of how much it’s worth monetarily — it’s not really discussed in terms of its artistic value. That seemed intentional on your part. 

We definitely wanted to show the increase [in the painting’s] value, which was one of the drivers of the film — and also create this contrast between art on the one side, and then profit-making and capitalism on the other side. In my mind, they’re total opposites: Art is this pure thing that we celebrate, [but] then it’s being used for the most cynical purposes you can think of.

This ties into something you mention in the film, which is that the Mona Lisa only became a famous painting in America in the 1960s when it was brought to the U.S. by President Kennedy and his wife. They made the painting fashionable: People wanted to see it because it was hyped as a big deal — people wanted to say that they’d seen it.

As human beings, we’re obsessed with obtaining “credit” or creating a story. You see that everyday on Instagram: [People] go somewhere to take a photo and they forget to be present. It’s a very common thing. We are so much not being present in our own body and mind and just enjoying things in life — we need to compare and share that experience all the time with the rest of the world in order to feel something, maybe because we’re afraid that we don’t feel it ourselves. It might be some kind of escape from being confronted and being present.

I think it’s this syndrome where we think, “I feel self-conscious about discussing the work, because maybe I’ll be exposed for not being smart enough. But if I get a picture with the art, I’ll get credit for seeming sophisticated.” 

Exactly, and the same syndrome takes place within the community of extremely rich people who buy these pieces of art. They probably do that because, instead of just buying a new private jet or a fantastic house, they suddenly can get something that is unique that nobody else has — something that they can talk about at their business meetings or dinners, something that on the surface has more depth than other commodities. Probably very few of them actually know about these painters or these paintings — they probably can just [talk] very superficially about when it was made or by who — but they need it because it makes them look good. It makes them look sophisticated and cultural.

Whether or not Salvator Mundi is authentic, the fact is it’s sitting on a boat where no one can see it. It’s, essentially, gone, like so many priceless masterpieces that are being stored away in freeports so that their rich owners don’t have to pay taxes on them. How does that make you feel? 

In general, it’s really sad that a lot of the finest art in the world isn’t accessible to the population. Art is a beautiful statement of humanity, and it’s something that connects us — I think it should be exhibited in a place where the public could see it. So it’s really sad that the finest art belongs to the wealthiest people in the world who don’t really care about it and who don’t even [look at] the art themselves — they just [stick] it away in these freeports. 

When you hear about how much art is being locked away, it’s super sad. I don’t know what to do about it, actually. I know that the European Union is trying to change the law so the freeports aren’t able to operate the way they do, but it’s really difficult because it’s the most powerful people in the world who have invested in them, and have their things in them. So it’s really difficult to change.