A new French documentary, directed by Antoine Vitkine, arrives in the United States with less fanfare than expected. A better film on the same subject, a supposedly newly discovered Leonardo da Vinci painting, “The Lost Leonardo,” was already released stateside last month.
Like “The Lost Leonardo,” “Savior for Sale: Da Vinci’s Lost Masterpiece?” is about the discovery of “Salvator Mundi,” a painting that some experts have attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. Bought by a couple of art investors for less than $2,000, the painting will eventually be sold at Christie’s auction house for over $450 million. It’s an irresistible narrative.
Frankly, “The Lost Leonardo” is fleeter, more internally consistent, more absorbing. That said, “Savior for Sale” provides an object lesson in the ways a moviemaker’s perspective, or agenda, is expressed.
For instance, Dianne Modestini, a prominent restorer, one of the lead interviewees of “The Lost Leonardo,” is barely featured here. No wonder: while the makers of “The Lost Leonardo” extend a lot of sympathy to Modestini, and often emphasize her integrity, “Savior for Sale” leans on the idea that “Salvator Mundi” wasn’t so much restored as repainted. As such, this documentary can be seen as an attempt to chronicle multiple scams, extending all the way to the withdrawal of the painting from an exhibition at the Louvre.
In addition, there are individual scenes here, and interviewees that were absent from “The Lost Leonardo,” which add spice to the narrative of how an ostensibly lost painting by a Renaissance master was restored, kicked around various markets of the mega-rich, and subsequently bought, it seems, by a Saudi royal.
One spicy new element is Loic Gouzer, the former co-chairman of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s who put together the painting’s final auction. He is portrayed as a brash and repellent character. Gouzer’s own social media accounts provide no small assist here; posts include a boastful video of him proclaiming, “We’ll do an auction that will make the market great again.”
Vitkine, however, can be sloppy; he names individual sections after certain power players (“The Curator,” “The Expert”) and deems two different people “The Merchant.” He then plays some dirty pool by showing a headline from The New York Times about the buyer of the painting, cropping out the byline of the correspondent David D. Kirkpatrick.
Scott Reyburn, a London-based freelance journalist who writes for the Times and is featured onscreen, allows that Kirkpatrick’s article was “quite a scoop.” You bet!
Savior for Sale: Da Vinci’s Lost Masterpiece?
Not rated. In English and French, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes. Rent or buy on Amazon, Apple TV and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.