Where has Leonardo da Vinci’s €375m painting gone?
French curators had worked for a decade to prepare a major exhibition to mark the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death. When it opened, most of it talked about painting They had planned to show – Salvator Mundi, the most expensive work ever to be sold at auction – was nowhere to be seen.
The painting had been ripped out of the shabby darkness during a real estate sale in New Orleans sold in 2017 as a rediscovered “lost” Leonardo and fetched more than $ 450 million or about 375 million euros from an anonymous bidder who kept it hidden. The opportunity to see it two years later at the Louvre’s anniversary exhibition had caused a stir in the international art world and its world absence raised 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 it on the show for fear of public scrutiny? The tantalizing notion 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.
Far from a controversy over art history, the painting’s withdrawal seems to have raised questions of power and ego
None of that was true. In fact, more than a year earlier, in 2018, the Crown Prince had secretly brought 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 gave the unframed canvas a week long forensic examination using some of the most advanced technologies available to the art world, and in their secret report they had stated with more authority than any previous assessment that the painting appeared to be the work of Leonardo himself be.
However, the Saudis had withheld it 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 on condition of anonymity because the talks were confidential.
Far from a controversy over art history, the painting’s withdrawal seems to have raised questions of power and ego.
The Louvre in Paris. Photo: Dmitry Kostyukov / New York Times
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 disapproved of these demands as irrational and impractical, and in turn refused to publish their own positive assessment of their authenticity, unless the Saudis allowed Salvator Mundi to hang on the walls of the Louvre, which the French government oversees.
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 that Taradiddle would have evaporated,” says Luke Syson, director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, part of Cambridge University, and curator who oversaw a 2011 Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery in London, including Salvator Mundi belonged.
When the only painting was exhibited, he declared: “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 in an inventory after his execution in 1649 in the collection of King Charles I of England. However, the historical record of his possession ends at the end of the 18th century.
Then, in about 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 or € 8,500 and took it to a skilled specialist to remove the later layers of paint and restore the original.
Despite their rejection, the Louvre curators had secretly produced a glossy, 46-page magazine-style summary of the conclusions of their forensic examination of the painting
Since then it has changed hands a few times and hung as Leonardo in the 2011 exhibition in the National Gallery in London. But it was the record deal in 2017 – for $ 450 million – that made headlines for Salvator Mundi, especially after the New York Times reported that the anonymous buyer was a replacement for the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.
Now the controversy hit the headlines again when a new French documentary was released last week claiming the Louvre had concluded that Leonardo “only contributed to Salvator Mundi”. The documentary features two camouflaged characters identified as French government officials claiming the crown prince 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 refused to comment on the museum’s verdict on Salvator Mundi. The Louvre insisted that the report on the authenticity of the painting “does not exist,” says Viktine. Despite their rejection, the Louvre curators had secretly produced a glossy, 46-page magazine-style summary of the conclusions of their forensic examination of the painting. Its existence was first reported in March 2020 by Alison Cole from Art Newspaper. Scanned copies of the confidential report became valuable possessions among prominent Leonardo experts around the world, and the New York 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-powered microscopes to match the characteristic details of the materials and artistic techniques in Salvator Mundi with the other Leonardo -Masterpieces of the Louvre.
The thin wooden plank on which the Salvator Mundi was painted was the same variety of walnut from Lombardy that Leonardo used in other works. The artist had added finely powdered glass 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,” writes Vincent Delieuvin, one of two curators of the anniversary exhibition, in a long essay describing the examination, and notes that the painting “unfortunately has been badly Damage was damaged by conservation ”and by“ old, undoubtedly too brutal restorations ”.
The President of the Louvre, Jean-Luc Martinez, is 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 writes in the foreword. (His current term ends this month, and French President Emmanuel Macron is overdue to announce whether he will extend Martinez’s term or appoint a new leader.)
Jean-Luc Martinez, the President of the Louvre. Photo: Julien Mignot / New York Times
The Louvre was so keen to include Salvator Mundi in its anniversary exhibition that the curators planned to use an image of the painting for the front of its catalog, officials say. But the Saudis’ insistence that Salvator Mundi also partner with the Mona Lisa was asking too much, French officials say. Exceptional security measures around the Mona Lisa make it extraordinarily 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, as a compromise, Salvator Mundi could move closer to the Mona Lisa after a period in the anniversary exhibition, the French officials said.
And even after the exhibition opened without 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 Salvator Mundi, was later appointed Saudi Arabia’s minister of culture. When he happened to be visiting Paris, the French minister of culture and the Louvre president took him on a private tour of the museum and exhibition to persuade him to loan the painting, French officials say.
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, says museum officials are prohibited from discussing such documents as French regulations prohibit the disclosure of a rating or authentication of works that are not on display in the museum.
Corinne Hershkovitch, a leading French art attorney, says these “longstanding traditions” were “formalized into law in 2013 by a decree establishing the status of preservationists”. But since the French refuse to talk about the painting and the Saudis refuse to show it, the growing questions about the painting have taken a toll, says Robert Simon, a New York art dealer involved in the rediscovery of Salvator Mundi is involved. “It’s polluted in a way,” he says, “because of all this unjustified speculation.” – New York Times