Yeah, But Is It Art? Fascinating documentary explores whether a damaged painting is a lost work by Leonardo da Vinci

Is the Salvator Mundi, a painting discovered in a severely damaged and painted-over state, then painstakingly restored, really a lost work of the great Leonardo da Vinci? A $450 million dollar bid by a Saudi Arabian prince would certainly like to think it is.

“Rediscovered” back in 2005, it was purchased for near nothing by art enthusiasts who simply had a hunch there might be something more to what had appeared to be a damaged copy of the legendary long-lost work. The painting was slowly cleaned up and restored by Dianne Dwyer Modestini. As Modestini began removing layers of paint and getting down to the original work, she noticed some techniques—including work around the figure’s lips similar to the mouth of the Mona Lisa—that convinced her she was looking at the real deal.

The Lost Leonardo, directed by Andreas Koefoed, speaks with many of the figures, including Modestini, who contributed to the transformation of the painting from a marred, closet find into the most expensive painting in the world. 

Mind you, the painting Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Fahhan al-Saud (God, that’s a long name) allegedly forked over close to half a billion dollars for a couple of years ago might not actually be a da Vinci. While some experts have authenticated its origins, many doubt its authenticity. And even if da Vinci did put a brush to a piece of wood hundreds of years ago, and this painting is part of that result, much of what is on display now is work provided by Modestini. Very little of it is the original depiction. 

Yet, the mystique surrounding its origins, various dealings back and forth with mounting prices, a marketing campaign that included Leonardo DiCaprio staring in awe, and an eventual record-setting auction seems to be saying 100% authenticity doesn’t really seem to matter in the art world. Koefed’s film does an excellent job of depicting the drama and intrigue behind the building of a massive production to make big money on something that might not even be real.

If you’ve just been catching glances of stories on the painting through the years, you probably thought the painting had been deemed legit, and that’s why it went for so much at auction. The many facts revealed in this documentary paint an entirely different picture (OK…sorry about that, let’s move on). A series of da Vinci copies I drew for an art class in college are probably more legit than that painting. Hey, I’m selling! A mere $5,000 bucks and they are yours!  

The painting seemingly stands as much of a chance at being fake as it does being real. It’s almost as if the huge bid was paid in order to seal its legitimacy regardless of history. $450 million dollars says the painting is real. It’s currently in storage somewhere waiting for a permanent installation in a gallery. The Prince (I’m not typing that name again) teased the Louvre with a chance to display the piece as part of a da Vinci exhibition, then pulled participation at the last second. It hasn’t been seen by others in years. 

The subjects on both sides of the argument in The Lost Leonardo are alternately convincing. Modestini’s observation of the lip, and other traits of the painting, make it seem likely it could be real. But so many factors contribute to it being a fake or having very little participation from the master. 

Doesn’t matter. As The Lost Leonardo displays, people with power and money say it’s a da Vinci. The film doesn’t give a definitive answer because there is no definitive answer. Your guess is as good as anybody’s, and in the case of at least one Saudi Arabian prince (I’m not typing that name again), some guesses can be mighty expensive. 

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