French curators had worked for a decade to prepare a major exhibition on the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death. When it opened, the most talked about painting they wanted to show – “Salvator Mundi”, the most expensive work ever to be sold at auction – was nowhere to be seen.
Torn from the shabby darkness during a property sale in New Orleans, the painting was sold as the rediscovered “lost” Leonardo in 2017 and received more than $ 450 million from an anonymous bidder who did not reveal it. The opportunity to see it at the Louvre’s anniversary exhibition two years later had caused a stir in the international art world, and its absence sparked a storm of new questions.
Had the Louvre decided that the painting was not Leonardo, as a handful of scholars had insisted? Had the buyer – who was allegedly Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, though he never acknowledged it – declined to include him on the show for fear of public scrutiny? The tantalizing idea that the brazen Saudi prince might have gambled away a fortune on a scam had already inspired a home industry with books, documentaries, gossip columns from the art world, and even a proposed Broadway musical.
None of that was true.
In fact, more than a year earlier, in 2018, the Crown Prince had secretly shipped the “Salvator Mundi” to the Louvre, according to several French officials and a confidential French report on its authenticity received by the New York Times. The report also says the painting belongs to the Saudi Ministry of Culture – something the Saudis have never recognized.
A team of French scientists put the unframed canvas on a week long forensic examination using some of the most advanced technologies available to the art world, and in their secret report they had pronounced with more authority than any previous assessment that the painting appeared to be the work of Leonardo’s own hand.
However, the Saudis had held it back for very different reasons: A disagreement over a Saudi demand that their painting of Jesus be displayed next to the “Mona Lisa” said several French officials last week, speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks were taking place secret.
Far from a dispute over art history, the painting’s withdrawal seems to have raised questions of power and ego.
Some skeptics of the art world suspect the Saudis never meant it seriously to include the painting in the French exhibition and wanted to keep the work under wraps in order to increase the commercial potential of a later installation at a planned tourist site in the kingdom. However, current and former French officials say the Saudis were anxious that their newly acquired trophy would hang in the Louvre as long as it was placed next to the world’s most famous painting.
The French rejected these demands as irrational and unworkable and in turn refused to publish their own positive assessment of their authenticity unless the Saudis had the “Salvator Mundi” included in the Louvre exhibition organized by the French government is monitored.
And the resulting diplomatic stalemate between the French and the Saudis has kept the painting out of sight as the cloud of intrigue around it continues to swell.
“In all honesty, I think all the taradiddle would have evaporated,” said Luke Syson, director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, a curator who oversaw a 2011 Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery in London, which included the ” Salvator Mundi “belonged.
If only the painting was shown, he explained: “People could decide for themselves by experiencing the picture.”
“Salvator Mundi” is said to have been painted around 1500 and was one of two similar works that were listed in an inventory of the collection of King Charles I of England after his execution in 1649. However, the historical record of his possession ends at the end of the 18th century.
Then, around 2005, two New York art dealers rummaging through a property sale in New Orleans discovered a poorly restored and partially painted over painting that they suspected might be worth a closer look. They purchased it for less than $ 10,000 and took it to a skilled specialist to remove the later layers of paint and restore the original.
Since then it has changed hands a few times and in 2011 it hung as Leonardo in the exhibition at the National Gallery in London. But it was the record deal in 2017 – for $ 450 million – that made the Salvator Mundi front-page headline news, especially after The Times reported that the anonymous buyer was a replacement for the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia was.
Now the controversy has hit the headlines again last week with the release of a new French documentary, claiming the Louvre has concluded that Leonardo “merely” contributed to the “Salvator Mundi”. The documentary, which will air on French television on Tuesday, features two camouflaged characters identified as French government officials claiming Crown Prince Mohammed would not loan the painting to the anniversary exhibition because the Louvre refused to fully attribute the work to Leonardo.
In a telephone interview, the documentary’s director Antoine Vitkine said he stood by his claims and said the Louvre President had refused to comment on the museum’s verdict on the “Salvator Mundi”.
The Louvre had insisted that the report of the authenticity of the painting “did not exist,” Viktine said.
Despite their rejection, the Louvre curators had clandestinely produced a glossy, 46-page magazine-style summary of the conclusions of their forensic examination of the painting. Its existence was first reported by Alison Cole of The Art Newspaper in March 2020. Scanned copies of the confidential report became valuable possessions among prominent Leonardo experts around the world, and The Times received multiple copies.
Experts from the Center for Research and Restoration of Museums of France, an independent institute of the Ministry of Culture, used fluorescent X-rays, infrared scans and digital cameras aimed with high-performance microscopes to reveal the characteristic details of the materials and artistic techniques used in the “Salvator Mundi” other Leonardo masterpieces from the Louvre.
The thin wooden plank on which the “Salvator Mundi” was painted was the same type of walnut from Lombardy that Leonardo used in other works. The artist had added fine glass powder to the paint, as Leonardo did in his later years.
Traces of painting hidden beneath the visible layers, details in the strands of Christ’s hair, and the shades of bright vermilion used in the shadows all pointed to the hand of Leonardo, the report concluded.
“All of these arguments speak in favor of the idea of a fully ‘signed’ work,” wrote Vincent Delieuvin, one of two curators of the anniversary exhibition, in a long essay in which he described the examination, noting that the painting was “unfortunately badly the damage was caused by conservation ”and by“ old, undoubtedly too brutal restorations ”.
Jean-Luc Martinez, the President of the Louvre, was even more definitive. “The results of the historical and scientific study presented in this publication enable us to confirm the assignment of the work to Leonardo da Vinci,” he wrote in the foreword. (His current term ends this month, and French President Emmanuel Macron is overdue to announce whether he will extend Mr Martinez’s term or appoint a new leader.)
The Louvre was so keen to include the “Salvator Mundi” in its anniversary exhibition that the curators planned to use an image of the painting for the front of its catalog, officials said.
But the Saudis’ insistence that the “Salvator Mundi” also enter into a partnership with the “Mona Lisa” was asking too much, the French officials said.
Exceptional security measures around the “Mona Lisa” make it extremely difficult to remove the painting from its place on a special partition in the center of the Salle des États, a huge gallery on the upper floor. Placing a painting next to it would be impossible, argued the French officials.
The French minister of culture at the time, Franck Riester, tried to mediate for weeks and suggested that the “Salvator Mundi” as a compromise could move closer to the “Mona Lisa” after a period in the anniversary show, the French officials said.
And even after the exhibition opened without the “Salvator Mundi” in October 2019, French officials kept trying.
Prince Bader bin Farhan al-Saud, an old friend of Crown Prince Mohammed, who had acted as a substitute bidder for the “Salvator Mundi”, was later appointed Saudi Arabia’s minister of culture. When he happened to be in Paris, the French culture minister and Louvre president took him on a private tour of the museum and exhibition to persuade him to loan the painting, French officials said.
A spokesman for the Saudi embassy in Washington declined to comment.
A planned section of the catalog listing authentication was removed prior to release and the museum ordered that all copies of the report be kept in the warehouse.
Sophie Grange, a spokeswoman for the Louvre, said museum officials were prohibited from discussing such a document as French regulations prohibited disclosure of any rating or authentication of works not on display at the museum.
Corinne Hershkovitch, a leading French art attorney, said these “longstanding traditions” were “formalized into law in 2013 by a decree establishing the status of preservationists”.
But with the French refusing to talk about the painting and the Saudis refusing to show it, the growing questions about the painting have taken a toll, said Robert Simon, a New York art dealer involved in the rediscovery of the “Salvator Mundi ”was involved.
“It’s polluted in a way,” he said, “because of all this unjustified speculation.”