Da Vinci’s missing masterpiece finally goes on show … on a Saudi prince’s super-yacht
The most expensive painting ever sold was displayed on a super-yacht moored in the Red Sea after an illfated trip to Paris where a diplomatic dispute kept it out of a blockbuster da Vinci show at the Louvre.
The painting, Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, was reportedly hanging in Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s 134m yacht Serene until late last year as it moored off the coast of northwest Saudi Arabia.
The painting’s fate after its $US450m sale in 2017 has captivated the art world. The work hasn’t been seen publicly since, with some art-world insiders alleging it was being stored in a warehouse in Switzerland. A person who saw the artwork displayed in the Serene last year said he was “very surprised it was not in Switzerland as others believe”. Others knew it was in Saudi Arabia but didn’t know exactly where.
The crown prince’s sleek blackand-white yacht — which he bought in late 2016 after it was outfitted in 2011 with two helipads, three swimming pools, a dozen luxury cabins and an indoor climbing wall — is now in a Dutch shipyard for maintenance. Shortly before the Serene left for maintenance, the painting was moved to a secret location inside Saudi Arabia, two people familiar with the situation said.
Rumours about the painting’s whereabouts have been swirling since art dealer Kenny Schachter wrote on Artnet.com in June 2019 that it was whisked away in the middle of the night and moved to the yacht.
Steven Erisoty, a Philadelphia art conservator, said the Serene’s seawater surroundings could endanger the 500-year-old painting’s layers of wood and paint pigments if the work were exposed to continually fluctuating temperatures while on board.
“This painting was already unstable,” Mr Erisoty said, referring to extensive restoration work that filled in parts of Christ’s face and robe before the artwork’s sale.
He said the painting could conceivably remain unharmed if it were displayed in a room with strict temperature and humidity controls.
Art dealer Robert Simon and his colleague Alexander Parrish bought a painting by an unknown artist in 2005. Simon then asked his friend Dianne Modestini to restore it. Her work on the piece eventually led to the discovery that it was da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi.
Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, bought the Leonardo at a 2017 Christie’s auction. His bidding was done through Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed, a distant relative. Prince Bader said at the time that he had bid as a “friendly supporter” of Louvre Abu Dhabi, a new museum in the neighbouring United Arab Emirates. That museum said it would unveil the painting but never did so.
The artwork was then supposed to be shown at the Louvre Museum in Paris in late 2019. Curator Vincent Delieuvin confirmed in the weeks before the show opened that he had asked the owners of Salvator Mundi to borrow it for his blockbuster exhibit, coinciding with the 500th anniversary of the Renaissance master’s death.
According to Saudi and French officials, the kingdom shipped the painting to France but later declined to lend it to the exhibit after Louvre curators refused to hang it next to the Mona Lisa.
Leonardo’s masterpiece, which the museum considers immovable, hangs in a specially constructed room to accommodate huge crowds and high security.
“Both parties refused to budge,” said one Saudi official familiar with the stalemate. “For the kingdom, it was crucial to have it their way after the heat the crown prince got for paying almost half a billion dollars for a disputed painting.”
The official added: “I would not say that was a complete diplomatic standoff between the two countries, but the crown prince was offended by the French.”
Saudi government spokespeople did not respond to a request for comment.
Questions around the ultimate fate of Salvator Mundi within Saudi Arabia have also roiled the art world. The kingdom’s Ministry of Culture told The Wall Street Journal last year that it planned to build a new museum to display the work as part of a multi-billion-dollar effort to make Saudi Arabia an international art destination.
The painting’s eventual debut there could prove delicate because the country’s cultural campaign hinges on highlighting its history as the centre of Islam, not showcasing a European master’s portrait of Christ as a “Saviour of the World”, the meaning of its Latin title.
“It’s an issue of perception. What does it say about Saudi identity if we put that painting on a poster?” Stefano Carboni, chief executive of the ministry’s Museums Commission, said last year.
Mr Carboni said he hoped to display the Leonardo work in a museum for Western art that could be located next to another museum focused on Islamic art, the kingdom’s primary focus. Those museums haven’t yet been built.