French curators had worked for a decade to prepare a major exhibition marking the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci. When it opened, though, the most talked-about painting they had planned to show — “Salvator Mundi,” the most expensive work ever sold at auction — was nowhere to be seen.
Plucked from shabby obscurity at a New Orleans estate sale, the painting had been sold in 2017 as a rediscovered “lost” Leonardo and fetched more than $450 million from an anonymous bidder who kept it hidden from view. The chance to see it at the Louvre museum’s anniversary show two years later had created a sensation in the international art world, and its absence whipped up a storm of new questions.
Had the Louvre concluded that the painting was not actually the work of Leonardo, as a vocal handful of scholars had insisted? Had the buyer — reported to be Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, though he had never acknowledged it — declined to include it in the show for fear of public scrutiny? The tantalizing notion that the brash Saudi prince might have gambled a fortune on a fraud had already inspired a cottage industry of books, documentaries, art world gossip columns, and even a proposed Broadway musical.
None of that was true.
In fact, the crown prince had secretly shipped the “Salvator Mundi” to the Louvre more than a year earlier, in 2018, according to several French officials and a confidential French report on its authenticity that was obtained by The New York Times. The report also states that the painting belongs to the Saudi Culture Ministry — something the Saudis have never acknowledged.
a 2011 Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery in London that included the “Salvator Mundi.”
If the only painting were displayed, he explained, “people could decide for themselves by experiencing the picture.”
Believed to have been painted around 1500, “Salvator Mundi” was one of two similar works listed in an inventory of the collection of King Charles I of England after his execution in 1649. But the historical record of its ownership ends in the late 18th century.
the anonymous buyer was a surrogate for the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.
Now the controversy has made headlines again with the release of a new French documentary this past week claiming that the Louvre had concluded that Leonardo had “merely contributed” to the “Salvator Mundi.” Set to air on French television on Tuesday, the documentary features two disguised figures, identified as French government officials, asserting that Crown Prince Mohammed would not loan the painting to the anniversary exhibition because the Louvre refused to attribute the work fully to Leonardo.