It took me and a colleague five or six months to track down Hendry. When we rang him up, we had no idea whether he had owned this picture or not. He said, “Oh yeah, we did have one of those hanging in the stairwell.”
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
I wrote the book I set out to write. I wanted to write an art history book that wasn’t an art history book. I wanted to write a thriller about a heist — I don’t mean that in a negative way. But two dealers find this painting and pay a thousand dollars for it, and 12 years later it’s worth $450 million. That’s a Guy Ritchie film. Or “Point Break.”
The story had this classic skeleton, and I could weave in Leonardo’s bio, slightly revisionist, and I could also mount an investigation: Was it a Leonardo or not? Here is this old master painting, which tells you everything you need to know about the history of art and the art market and what art has become. I don’t have to give you lots of generalizations about it, all I have to do is tell the story of this painting, fact by fact, and the readers will get it all and make up their own minds.
Every day, I felt like, this is my dream job. This is the best project and subject I’ll ever have. It was difficult to write. Just because I knew what I wanted to do from day one didn’t mean it was easy.
Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?
Max Beckmann, the wonderful German Expressionist. His busy themes of life in Berlin in the first half of the 20th century had a huge impact on me at the age of 17, when I was working at an auction house in Munich. There was a Max Beckmann exhibition on, and there was something about his vision of the world — dense and chaotic, but also exuberant.
And I have to mention one writer. Italo Calvino is my hero. I read “Invisible Cities” every year. There’s a quote from it in the beginning of my book.
Persuade someone to read “The Last Leonardo” in 50 words or less.
It’s the greatest story of survival in the history of art. It’s basically an art history version of “The Revenant” — not with Leonardo DiCaprio, but with Leonardo da Vinci. It’s a historical costume drama, a thriller and a detective story all rolled into one.