Af­ter $450 mil­lion sale, a Leonardo paint­ing van­ished

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Insight - BY DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK New York Times

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMI­RATES

The Lou­vre Abu Dhabi might seem to have all you could ask for in a world­class mu­seum. Its ac­claimed de­sign shades its gal­leries un­der a vast dome that ap­pears to hover over the wa­ters of the Per­sian Gulf. In­side are works by Rem­brandt and Ver­meer, Monet and van Gogh, Mon­drian and Basquiat.

Yet the work that the Lou­vre Abu Dhabi once promised would an­chor its col­lec­tion is con­spic­u­ously ab­sent: “Sal­va­tor Mundi,” a paint­ing of Je­sus Christ at­trib­uted to Leonardo da Vinci.

Few works have evoked as much in­trigue, ei­ther in the world of art or among the courts of Per­sian Gulf roy­als. First, its authen­tic­ity as the prod­uct of Leonardo’s own hand was the sub­ject of in­tense de­bate. Then, in Novem­ber 2017, it be­came the most ex­pen­sive work ever sold at auction, fetch­ing $450.3 mil­lion from an anony­mous bid­der who turned out to be a close ally and pos­si­ble stand-in for the ruler of Saudi Ara­bia, Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man.

Now, the paint­ing is shrouded in a new mys­tery: Where in the world is “Sal­va­tor Mundi”?

Al­though the Abu Dhabi cul­ture depart­ment an­nounced about a month af­ter the auction that it had some­how ac­quired “Sal­va­tor Mundi” for dis­play in the lo­cal Lou­vre, a sched­uled un­veil­ing of the paint­ing last Septem­ber was can­celed with­out ex­pla­na­tion. The cul­ture depart­ment is re­fus­ing to an­swer ques­tions. Staff mem­bers of the Lou­vre Abu Dhabi say pri­vately that they have no knowl­edge of the paint­ing’s where­abouts.

The Lou­vre in Paris, which li­censes its name to the Abu Dhabi mu­seum, has not been able to lo­cate “Sal­va­tor Mundi,” ei­ther, ac­cord­ing to an of­fi­cial fa­mil­iar with the mu­seum’s dis­cus­sions with Abu Dhabi, who de­clined to be named be­cause of the con­fi­den­tial­ity of the talks.

Of­fi­cials in the French govern­ment, which owns the Lou­vre in Paris, are ea­ger to in­clude “Sal­va­tor Mundi” in a land­mark ex­hi­bi­tion this fall to mark the 500th an­niver­sary of Leonardo’s death and say they are still hold­ing out hope that the paint­ing might resur­face in time. (A rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the

Lou­vre de­clined to com­ment.)

But some Leonardo ex­perts say they are alarmed by the un­cer­tainty about the paint­ing’s where­abouts and fu­ture, es­pe­cially af­ter the an­nounce­ment from Abu Dhabi that the paint­ing would go on dis­play to the pub­lic.

“It is tragic,” said Dianne Modes­tini, a pro­fes­sor at New York Univer­sity’s In­sti­tute of Fine Arts and a con­ser­va­tor who has worked on “Sal­va­tor Mundi.” “To de­prive the art lovers and many oth­ers who were moved by this pic­ture – a masterpiece of such rar­ity – is deeply unfair.”

Martin Kemp, an Ox­ford art his­to­rian who has stud­ied the paint­ing, de­scribed it as “a kind of re­li­gious ver­sion of the ‘Mona Lisa’ ” and Leonardo’s “strong­est state­ment of the elu­sive­ness of the divine.”

“I don’t know where it is, ei­ther,” he added.

Not­ing that it was never clear how Abu Dhabi might have ac­quired the paint­ing from the Saudis in the first place – whether by a gift, loan or pri­vate sale – some have spec­u­lated that Crown Prince Mo­hammed might sim­ply have de­cided to keep it. The Saudi em­bassy in Wash­ing­ton de­clined to com­ment.

The claim that the paint­ing was the work of Leonardo him­self orig­i­nated af­ter a pair of deal­ers spot­ted it at an auction in New Or­leans in 2005 and brought it to Modes­tini of NYU.

She stripped away over­paint­ing, re­paired dam­age made by a split in the wood panel, and re­stored de­tails. Among other things, one of Je­sus’ hands ap­peared to have two thumbs, pos­si­bly be­cause the artist changed his mind about where the thumb should be and painted over the orig­i­nal thumb. It had been exposed by scrap­ing later on, and Modes­tini cov­ered the thumb she be­lieved Leonardo did not want.

Its new at­tri­bu­tion to Leonardo won the paint­ing a spot in a ret­ro­spec­tive of his work at the Na­tional Gallery in London in 2011. Two years later, a Rus­sian bil­lion­aire, Dmitry Ry­bolovlev, bought it for $127.5 mil­lion – less than a third of what he sold it for in 2017, when it was auc­tioned in New York by Christie’s.

The Lou­vre Abu Dhabi’s fail­ure to ex­hibit “Sal­va­tor Mundi” as promised has re­vived doubts about whether it is Leonardo’s at all, with skep­tics spec­u­lat­ing that the new owner may fear pub­lic scru­tiny.

Auction house con­tracts typ­i­cally in­clude a fiveyear authen­tic­ity warranty. But the ex­ten­sive pub­lic doc­u­men­ta­tion and de­bate be­fore the 2017 sale would make it dif­fi­cult for the buyer to re­cover the pay­ment by chal­leng­ing the at­tri­bu­tion to Leonardo.

The anony­mous buyer at the auction in New York, Prince Bader bin Ab­dul­lah bin Mo­hammed bin Farhan al-Saud, was a lit­tle known mem­ber of a dis­tant branch of the Saudi royal fam­ily with no pub­licly known source of great wealth or his­tory as a ma­jor art col­lec­tor. But he was a close friend and con­fi­dant of Crown Prince Mo­hammed. A few months af­ter the auction, the royal court named Bader as the king­dom’s first-ever min­is­ter of cul­ture.

Christie’s ini­tially sought to guard Bader’s iden­tity so closely dur­ing the bid­ding that it cre­ated a spe­cial ac­count num­ber for him that was known only to a hand­ful of the house’s ex­ec­u­tives. But con­tracts and cor­re­spon­dence ob­tained by The New York Times showed Bader to be the anony­mous buyer.

U.S. of­fi­cials fa­mil­iar with the ar­range­ment later said Bader was in fact act­ing as a sur­ro­gate for Crown Prince Mo­hammed him­self, the true pur­chaser of “Sal­va­tor Mundi.”

BEN­JAMIN NOR­MAN NYT file photo

Leonardo da Vinci's "Sal­va­tor Mundi" was on dis­play Nov. 13, 2017, at Christie's in New York, two days be­fore it sold at auction for a record-break­ing $450.3 mil­lion.

KATA­RINA PREMFORS NYT

The plan to dis­play “Sal­va­tor Mundi” at the Lou­vre Abu Dhabi was scrapped in Septem­ber 2018 with­out ex­pla­na­tion, and the paint­ing's where­abouts are un­known.

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