This documentary tries to pull off what the brilliant Man on Wire did. That was intriguing and made us feel like we were watching some kind of heist film. This wants us to feel that way, and it certainly shows us a few shady characters and interesting players in the art world, but it just goes on so long that it starts to get a bit redundant. At some point, you sort of stop caring. Yet as someone who has written for memorabilia publications, this was right in my wheelhouse. And really, who doesn’t turn on Antiques Roadshow and love seeing when someone brings in a painting they bought at an estate sale, and find out it’s worth thousands more than they thought (or they bring in a vase they thought was from the Ming dynasty, only to find out the Dollar Store made them eight years ago and they’re worth a buck).
The trailer for this looked amazing, because the idea that somebody may have done a painting of Jesus and passed it off as a Leonardo da Vinci, is an interesting story. Yet about halfway through, after numerous experts and authenticators give their two cents, the story is more interested in talking about the rich folks in the art world, Russian oligarchs, and as my wife said -- “Didn’t we sort of see this in Tenet?”
The painting shows Jesus holding a hand raised in a blessing (looking like a hippie giving someone the peace sign). His other hand is holding a starry orb. He’s got a robe, with dangling sleeves. It had been proven that da Vinci had done a few “Savior of the World” drawings, as there were sketches that show the Renaissance artist working on them. The question was whether this painting, that some guy paid a thousand bucks for in an estate sale in New Orleans, was actually one of these.
To give you a bit of perspective on the artist that created the Mona Lisa...in 2005 there were less than 25 paintings of his in existence - that means works of art he either entirely painted, or had a part in creating. Yet, when it comes to paintings that all the experts agree are true da Vinci’s -- that number is under 10.
The guy that buys the painting spends years having it restored, and then he brings in a handful of da Vinci experts to take a look. It reminded me of a story I read decades ago about a man who bought a letter written and signed by Abraham Lincoln. It turned out to be a forgery, but people didn’t know at first because all the tests and carbon dating originally done, showed that it was ink and paper from that time period. It turns out, not too long after Lincoln died, someone was creating forgeries of his signature. And that’s what made this story interesting to me. It’s not like someone in a garage in Chula Vista painted this 12 years ago trying to trick the art world. That wouldn’t fly. But, if this was done around da Vinci’s time, but wasn’t from his paintbrush, who can really say? And is that worth the risk?
At one point, the dude that had it restored can’t sell it. After a few years, he finally gets $80 million (nice investment on a $1,000 painting that nobody knew was anything). It will eventually sell again for $650 mil, still with its authenticity in question. Baffling! [side note: this review may be the first time anyone has ever talked about da Vinci, and used the word “dude” so, I apologize].
I wondered if in writing this review, talking about what it sold for would be a spoiler alert, but it’s not. Because that’s one of the interesting things about this documentary. It goes down interesting paths that talk about tax laws and how to get around them (which as my wife so astutely pointed out -- “they did that in Tenet”). You learn about art restoration and analysis. And for those of us that have valuable collectibles, we all think of situations we were involved in that we would just as soon forget.
Unfortunately, some of the talking heads we see don’t give us the kind of details we need. I also would have liked to have heard other stories and examples of art that was auctioned off, and turned out not to be from the person they thought. Yet the filmmaker was smart enough to go down an interesting story involving a guy who helps procure valuable artwork for a rich Russian. What he does involving the painting -- was worth the price of admission. Oh wait, I almost forgot about the Saudi Arabian prince who enters the picture near the end. See, the documentary was so long, I forgot other interesting elements about it. They really should have cut 20 minutes out of this and tightened things up a bit.
It’s also hard to truly care about whether or not it’s real, because of people that have hundreds of millions of dollars they can throw at a painting that might not even be authentic, oh well.
This is going to be playing at my favorite theatre in town -- the Angelika Film Center. It’s worth checking out.
3 stars out of 5.