A new documentary on the controversy surrounding Salvator Mundi was released in September. The film, The Lost Leonardo by Andreas Koefoed, comes hot on the heels of another documentary, The Saviour for Sale, which premiered on French TV this past spring.
The panel painting has been controversially credited to Leonardo da Vinci by some experts and reputed a fake by others over the last decade. Tensions surrounding the painting reached a new head when it became the most expensive painting ever sold at auction, at $450m (£326m) by Christie’s in 2017, after one of the most hyped pre-auction campaigns in recent history.
However, the drama did not stop there. The painting now belongs to Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who unsuccessfully campaigned for his new treasure to sit alongside the Mona Lisa in the Louvre’s 2019 Leonardo da Vinci exhibition. Instead, many speculate that the Prince now holds the painting on his superyacht, away from the public eye. It is apparent that the new documentary is about much more than a painting; the film critiques the use of priceless cultural heritage as pawns by those who hold immense power, whether that power comes in the form of money or professional reputation.
At the heart of the film is renowned conservator Dianne Modestini who has likely gazed at this painting longer than anyone else, having treated the work just before the controversy and auction took the stage not only in the art world but across the entire globe. It seems now that everyone has an opinion on the painting and its story; perhaps all that is left to discover is whether this film will change yours.
(article appears in the October-November 2021 "News in Conservation" Issue 86, p. 7)